LOS ANGELES – The night that Donald Trump was elected, former NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield was in Canada, supervising production on the upcoming season of the Minnesota-set series “Fargo.”
“My first thought was, ‘I’m out,’ ” Littlefield said last week. “I’ve got apartments in Calgary and Toronto. I’m just going to stay.’ But in the light of day, I said, ‘I’m an American.’ I realized I couldn’t give up.”
If Hollywood was initially shell-shocked by the notion of a Trump presidency, it is now actively adjusting to a climate in which Americans may turn to television for both inspiration and escapism.
For many, Meryl Streep’s attack on Trump at last weekend’s Golden Globes Awards, in which she urged her peers to turn their broken hearts into art, has become a rallying cry.
“I don’t think there is space for neutrality today where you can just go, ‘I ignore it. I see it, but I just want to ignore it,’ ” said actress Freida Pinto, the “Slumdog Millionaire” star whose upcoming Showtime series, “Guerrilla,” looks at efforts to quash black activism in 1970s London. “I can’t see myself not standing up for what I believe in, and for the voices that don’t get a chance to be heard.”
Next Saturday, “Superstore” star America Ferrera will lead a group of celebrities, including Scarlett Johansson and Amy Schumer, in a women’s march on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration.
Ferrera said her personal beliefs will continue to be reflected on the NBC series that she also produces. “Diversity and women’s issues have always been part of the fabric of the show,” the Emmy winner said. “With everything going on, we’ll probably feel more charged.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, network television this year is presenting its most socially relevant slate in years. “When We Rise,” an upcoming ABC miniseries, explores the roots of the gay-rights movement in America. Fox’s “Shots Fired” looks at the repercussions of a police shooting. ABC’s “American Crime” will tackle immigration and indentured servitude in the suburban South.
After the election, “Fresh Off the Boat” star Randall Park said he initially “wondered if the industry would think, ‘Oh, we have to go backwards a little bit to cater to that world, [of Trump voters]. But I don’t think that’ll be the case. I feel like progress in this industry is very much its own thing. It’s a train. It’s not a fast train, but it’s a moving train. And I don’t think it’s going to stop.”
Most series airing in the near future were deep into development long before the November surprise. But reaction is starting to creep into content.
In the most recent episode of ABC’s “Black-ish,” one character faced derision from her officemates for supporting the president-elect.
Producers for “The Good Fight,” a spinoff of the CBS series “The Good Wife” that premieres next month, re-shot a key scene hours after election night to reflect its lead character’s dismay over the outcome.
“You have a character who is in a practical free-fall similar to what the country is feeling right now,” said lead actress Christine Baranski, whose character kept a framed photo of Hillary Clinton in her office. “How do you take the next step up when there’s no foundation? Where are we morally?”
Prospect of backlash
But if the industry goes overboard in trying to spread a left-leaning message, it could alienate the large contingent of viewers who are looking forward to a Trump presidency or, at the very least, are fed up with politics as usual.
“If storytellers don’t recognize that there are millions of viewers with grievances, then we’re being naive and not doing our jobs,” said writer/producer Howard Gordon, who helped make “24” and “Homeland” a conversation starter on both sides of the political aisle. “TV may not have the power to answer questions, but it can ask the questions. Characters like Carrie [the CIA officer on ‘Homeland’] can be great proxies.”
Producer Matt Nix agrees that it’s risky to ignore the lessons from the campaign trail.
“I don’t think the networks will do very well if they say, ‘Here’s our vision of America and if you’re not part of it, you’re out,’ ” said Nix, whose upcoming Fox drama “APB” features a tech billionaire attempting to reboot the criminal justice system.
Whether TV treads lightly or stomps noisily into this era, backlash is inevitable.
The president-elect himself quickly responded to Streep’s comments, calling her a “Hillary flunky.” Some wonder whether his administration will wage a full-out war with those in Hollywood who insist on using TV as a socially progressive platform.
The “Black-ish” episode triggered the recirculation of a tweet from 2014 in which Trump derided the series, suggesting that a show called “White-ish” would be treated as racism at the highest level.
Although the gay-rights miniseries “When We Rise” doesn’t premiere until Feb. 27, it already has been attacked by conservative groups.
“We have been targeted,” said Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), who wrote the docudrama. “We will get absolutely zero ratings on every internet platform. But this show is not a war. We are not against anyone. I think there are a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who will love this show, and if Donald Trump actually watches it, I think he might like it.”
Some believe the conservative climate in Washington may heighten viewers’ interest in shows that offer a counterbalance. After all, Norman Lear’s left-leaning sitcoms such as “All in the Family” flourished during President Richard Nixon’s administration. Conversely, law-and-order procedurals dominated the NBC lineup during the Bill Clinton years.
Politically incorrect banter is always on the menu in the new CBS sitcom “Superior Donuts,” set in a coffee shop frequented by cops. In one scene, a white patrolwoman jokes that she won’t shoot a black patron because her body cam is on.
“What comedy would not take advantage of the fact that this is a funny thing that happened to us?” said the show’s star, veteran actor Judd Hirsch. “Any administration is funny. Everything is up for grabs in this country, and that’s what makes great comedy. I mean, if you don’t do it, it looks like you’re hiding. That would be crazy.”
Dule Hill, who played a presidential aide in the celebrated 1999-2006 drama “The West Wing,” is open to the theory that his show was embraced by audiences hungry for a more utopian White House during Clinton’s scandal-ridden second term and the embattled era of George W. Bush. “Everything is in the timing,” he said. “The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.”
The political shift may even inspire artists to step up their game.
“People have made beautiful art in just about every political context you could imagine, like the heroic work coming out of apartheid in South Africa,” said Kobi Libii, who co-stars with Hill in “Doubt,” a new CBS drama. “Your job is to respond to whatever is happening and make stories whatever the climate is.”
In a sense, the person sitting in the Oval Office is somewhat inconsequential, said John Ridley, creator of ABC’s “American Crime” and an Oscar winner for his screenplay for “12 Years a Slave.”
While Ridley said he was moved by Streep’s comments, “the reality is the issues that we are delving into have existed over decades. When people ask me what I did, I’m not going to say, ‘I sat on the fence.’ Certainly, as a storyteller, this is all I can do. I will continue to do it.”