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After Four Years of Resistance and Reflection, Where Does TV Go Next?

Many of the defining shows of the last few years sought to explain Donald Trump and the nation that brought him to power, for better or worse. Soon, though, there’ll be someone else in the Oval Office. 

Hulu/CBS/Ringer illustration

Donald Trump came out of TV, and some reports indicate that after his term in the White House—barring some coup-adjacent shenanigans—he may well go back to it. In between, Trump has had a transformational effect across popular culture, but especially on his home turf. My colleague Adam Nayman has spent the last several months tracking the subtle influence of various presidents on American film; before the pandemic massively disrupted the industry’s production and distribution, Trump-era cinema already included social allegories like Get Out, searing commentary like BlacKkKlansman, and class parables like Parasite. But TV, in addition to amplifying Trump in the first place, is an inherently reactive medium, with more set schedules and shorter turnaround times. As I wrote in the first year of Trump’s term, these circumstances uniquely positioned TV to reflect the political moment in something close to real time.

Trump’s impact was felt most quickly and dramatically on late-night television, an upheaval that was partly a coincidence of pure timing. With their daily production and traditional entanglement with national affairs, it was inevitable that franchises like The Tonight Show and Late Night would find themselves quickly caught up in the sea change. But the 2016 election also came swiftly on the heels of a near-total turnover in the membership of hosts’ small, elite, and highly influential club. Just two years before, Jay Leno handed the reins of NBC’s The Tonight Show over to Jimmy Fallon, who in turn passed Late Night on to Seth Meyers. In 2015, David Letterman left The Late Show on CBS to Stephen Colbert, while The Late Late Show went to James Corden; over on Comedy Central, Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show after Jon Stewart’s departure. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee launched on TBS in early 2016.

The changing of the guard was obvious, but its actual effects didn’t become clear until Trump arrived on the scene. The happy-go-lucky, apolitical ethos that gave Fallon a strong start in the late Obama years proved unsuited to a time when politics, and political stances, were unavoidable. Colbert, by contrast, found a moment to rise to, flipping a rocky start into an authoritative niche. Fallon mussing Trump’s hair may have been this reversal’s most visible flash point, precipitating a change in audience share that was breathlessly covered at the time and is now the new status quo: Colbert leads the ratings, with Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel vying for second place. The cause and effect was, in retrospect, obvious. On the one hand, the new president abdicated the role of trusted authority figure, and with it a good chunk of the presidency’s symbolic role. On the other, he also proved one person could serve as leader and entertainer to a loyal-enough audience. Those that didn’t want Trump as either were primed for handsome, besuited hosts to fill the void.

Fallon and Colbert are neat foils, but the increasing preference for substance over pure silliness didn’t apply to only them. Kimmel showed his righteous fury over the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act; Saturday Night Live turned the very fame-friendliness that let the show enable Trump-the-candidate into a means of spoofing Trump-the-president (and rehabilitating its own image). And the ways in which late night became part of Trump’s inescapable echo chamber foreshadowed how his influence would soon seep into all corners of the business. Over the last four years, the combination of Trump’s monstrous egotism and material power has turned almost every part of American life into a response to his influence—sometimes for the better, often for the worse. TV became a prime example.

Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was planned and produced before the 2016 election, though it premiered just a few months after Trump’s inauguration in the spring of 2017. The first season’s emphasis on state-sponsored misogyny and feminist protest could be chalked up to the zeitgeist, or maybe just the evergreen nature of Atwood’s themes. But in its second and third seasons, creator Bruce Miller and producer-star Elisabeth Moss were forced to push past their source material, and the story started straining for relevance instead of stumbling upon it. As Moss’s Offred evolved from anonymous victim to active agent for change, her story started to look more and more like a conscious appeal to the so-called “Resistance,” the half-earnest, oft-hashtagged moniker for mobilization against Trump’s perceived threat to democracy. The upwardly mobile professionals who watch streaming dramas were also those most likely to identify with the (largely online) opposition, and The Handmaid’s Tale stretched and contorted its story until it catered to their latent desires.

Other responses were even more overt. The most notorious, and critically lauded, instance of Trump-era TV is The Good Fight, Robert and Michelle King’s streaming-native iteration of the sexy, ethically ambiguous legal procedural. A spinoff of The Good Wife, The Good Fight kept the tight pace and episodic structure of its predecessor but took on the tone of our increasingly hysterical politics. Unlike other works of Trump-era satire, The Good Fight pushed past the broad strokes—He’s orange! He’s racist! He doesn’t pay taxes!—and into the loopy particulars, from the pee tape to Jeffrey Epstein’s frozen dick. In echoing white liberals’ astonishment through heroine Diane Lockhart, The Good Fight never tried to zoom out and put its era in context. Instead, it dove into the dirty, deeply stupid details without regard for decorum, or for what the writers might do if reality once again outstripped expectations—an audacity that’s impossible not to admire. The Kings tethered themselves so closely to a runaway train that its twists couldn’t evade them.

“Tethering oneself to a runaway train” worked out less well for ABC, which relied on bigoted conspiracy theorist Roseanne Barr for its hit reboot of her namesake sitcom, a gambit that predictably blew up in the network’s face with an appalling social media post that broke the camel’s back. One could argue that the reboot wave is vaguely Trumpian in its false nostalgia and wishful thinking; what is “make it 1997 again through science or magic” if not a longer version of “make TV great again”? But Roseanne, specifically, was a bald-faced Faustian bargain, and an unnecessary one too. In Barr’s absence, spinoff The Conners addresses working-class issues like the pandemic just fine. But however much Roseanne tried to distance itself from Roseanne, its final season became proof that overt Trumpism was a hard sell outside of Fox News.

The best Trump-era TV was often more elliptical. This year’s Emmys were a triumph for Succession and Watchmen, two meditations on key national concerns of the late 2010s: grotesque wealth and a nation’s long-simmering racism. (There was also a comedy sweep for Schitt’s Creek, an escapist fantasy where plutocrats learn the error of their ways from working people instead of turning them into political pawns.) Succession’s first table read fell on Election Day in 2016, a moment of triumph for Rupert Murdoch, creator Jesse Armstrong’s chief inspiration, and despair for the cast and crew. There are unmistakable traces of Ivanka in faux-feminist figurehead Shiv Roy and Don Jr. in Kendall, the desperate fuckup cursed by primogeniture. But Succession is never so gauche as to call its resonance out by name. Its ensemble cast is a menagerie of grotesques, each character a case study in the different ways wealth corrodes the soul and enables abuse. The chasm between their meagerness of spirit and magnitude of influence spoke for itself.

Watchmen takes place in a literal alternate universe, albeit one where a celebrity is also president. It’s also plumbing national wounds far deeper and older than a single autocrat, even if they’ve come under renewed focus in recent years. In Robert Redford’s America, Vietnam is a state and reparations are a reality. But as Regina King’s Angela Abar discovers, the law is still corrupted enough that her grandfather felt the need to move outside of it as Hooded Justice, her timeline’s first-ever masked vigilante. The twist was a radical inversion of superhero mythology; airing mere months before renewed protests swept the nation, it was also a distillation of how our institutions at best fell short in fixing and at worst perpetrated violence against Black people. Damon Lindelof chose to open his unauthorized sequel nearly a century ago, at the 1921 massacre of Tulsa’s Greenwood district. The show was the opposite of timely—it was eternal.

Neither nepotism nor income inequality nor police brutality are uniquely Trumpian phenomena, and stand little chance of ending with one amateur politician’s career. As many political analysts have outlined, Trump is a symptom, not the disease. Ironically, the shows that best capture his ethos and the national fever that played host to it are the ones that pushed past the mascot to the root causes beneath. (The same principle holds true for shows like One Day at a Time, Superstore, and Jane the Virgin—series with mostly or partly nonwhite casts that often focused on immigration, already a flash point in the Obama years.) In early 2018, High Maintenance pointedly avoided the omnipresent tragedy at the center of its second-season premiere. Even though certain time clues made it clear the event in question couldn’t be Trump’s election, every liberal watching recognized the collective panic and unhealthy coping mechanisms that ensued. True to its New York provincialism, High Maintenance focused on petty crises over larger ills but with an indirect approach that’s also proved versatile.

The full effects of Trump’s rise on pop culture will take many years, countless books, and several competing unified theories to tabulate; this piece is but one attempt at a first draft of history. But when one person takes up so much mental, creative, and spiritual energy over such a sustained period of time, their sudden diminishment prompts as much confusion as relief. Trump has become, in part, something for TV to define itself against, even as he’s undeniably one of its own. His defeat now creates a vacuum in the industry and a miniature version of an entire country’s dilemma: What now?