Television Takes on New Meaning in Trump’s America (Column)

More than ever, interpretation is in the eye of the (horrified) beholder

In the third episode of “The Young Pope,” the insinuations of the first two episodes become uncomfortable reality: The newly anointed Pius XII (Jude Law) is an unstable egomaniac. Lenny — the pope’s name, before he ascended to “His Holiness” — spends the opening two episodes obsessing over his first homily to the public, in a push-and-pull with Vatican leadership and the protocols of the divine office. When he does finally deliver his speech, at the end of the second hour, it so provocatively breaks with tradition that it is deeply destabilizing, for both the public and the Vatican’s status quo.

Lenny revels in it. “I’ve always been uncomfortable with wisdom,” he tells a confidant, basking in the triumph of his upset — both in unruffling the world with his speech, and in beating the odds of the papal conclave to become the next pope. “I don’t care about loving my neighbor as myself. I will never love my neighbor as myself. … I love myself more than my neighbor. More than God. I believe only in myself. I am the Lord omnipotent. Lenny, you have illumined yourself. F–k.”

This monologue becomes a soliloquy as the lens tightens on Lenny’s face; he begins to address the camera directly, forgetting the man next to him. A minute later, after the opening credits of the show, he breaks the fourth wall to look at the viewer, wink indulgently, and then turn away — smiling, as he goes, at a joke only he knows the punch line to.

It is hard not to see this unchecked self-regard in such a high, powerful office, as an American, and not feel a frisson of recognition. Donald Trump’s nascent presidency, like the rest of his career, has been marked by privileging self-aggrandizement over results. Indeed, just the first few hours of his presidency were marked by brooding over media coverage of his inauguration, which rapidly transitioned into a state-sponsored attempt to disprove the hard facts of the day’s events — crowd sizes, ratings estimates, and the uncomfortable fact that the protests of his swearing-in were better attended than the oath itself. In sketching out this portrait of an egomaniac in Lenny, writer/director/creator Paolo Sorrentino seems to be commenting, not too subtly, on political movements here and abroad that favor conservative demagoguery over progressive politics.

But Sorrentino, who first began writing “The Young Pope” three years ago and filmed it through the end of 2015, couldn’t have been commenting on Donald Trump — the Trump phenomenon barely even existed yet. Further, he disavowed any commentary on politics here or abroad, in response to a question from Variety’s Maureen Ryan at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. “I wrote this stuff a lot many years ago, so I don’t remember exactly why I wrote. But no. The idea was to investigate the world of the clergy and the contradictions and of the clergy and, in this case, of the Pope.” Sorrentino went on to add that one of the reasons that Law’s character is both conservative and American is because papal scholarship suggests that an older, liberal pope like the one we currently have could be followed by a younger conservative, as a sort of corrective.

Which leads to an astonishing conclusion — that one of the most salient critiques of the Trump era in global history produced its commentary… by accident.

Partly, “The Young Pope’s” alarming prescience is an example of what art can do at its most magical — Sorrentino’s read of the Catholic Church, one of the world’s oldest and most influential institutions, produced a series of conclusions that was applicable to other institutions in the Western World. Sorrentino may not have intended commentary, but in his excavation of the papacy’s privileges and trappings, he grasped a theme, or series of themes, that proved to be panning out into wide-reaching trends in European and American politics.

“Series don’t even have to be overtly political to have particular resonance.”

At the same time, the show is an example of how significance is more than ever in the eye of the (abjectly terrified) beholder: In attempting to process a controversial and unprecedented political reality, viewers are finding commentary and context stories that were never intended to be about Donald Trump, as the long timeline of production cycles catches up to an American public watching in real-time as a new president tries to put a very different legacy into place. Consider the unlikely rehabilitation of the “Black Mirror” episode “The Waldo Moment,” where a puppet spewing insults grows in power until — against the puppetmaster’s will — it is elected to Parliament. It was reviled upon its release, but has since turned out to somehow be the most prescient of all.

As TV’s midseason premieres roll out, “The Young Pope” will not be the last show with new and surprising relevance in the Trump era. The TCA winter press tour provided a rolling discussion of how the new political order affected the storylines of shows developed during the Obama administration that deal with race, government, and international security. Months before it became clear that the Trump campaign’s persecution of Muslim immigrants and refugees would become national law, “Homeland” plotted a sixth season that depicts Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in a new role — as the head of a nonprofit that works to protect the rights of Muslim-Americans, during a particularly rocky transition between presidential administrations. Even the fact that the season takes place in New York City — where Donald Trump made his reputation and First Lady Melania Trump will continue to reside — is eerie.

Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which envisions with great visual detail an alternate history where Nazis conquered America, debuted its second season shortly after Trump’s election. Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, the show tweaks American ideas of identity by casting history through a dark mirror — and found itself airing after the election of a man whose victory was celebrated by literal Nazis. The dystopian drama advertised the season two premiere with a billboard advertisement in New York City that depicted the Statue of Liberty performing a Nazi salute. Residents complained; the dystopia felt a bit too much like real life.

Upcoming Hulu debut “The Handmaid’s Tale” similarly has strayed too close to reality in its dystopian storytelling. The Margaret Atwood book by the same name, published in 1985, is a frequently referenced feminist work about a world where women no longer have autonomy. In developing it for a 2017 release date, “The Handmaid’s Tale” found itself confronting a president who has repeatedly demeaned and harassed women he is connected to both personally and professionally, including joking that he could sexually assault women if he wanted to. “We are fascinated and horrified by the parallels,” star Elisabeth Moss said at the show’s panel at TCA, adding that her own performance has been affected by how close to home the horror feels.

And another genre adaptation, “American Gods,” has been in development even longer; the series was greenlit in 2015, based on the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman. The series processes thoroughly the repercussions and ramifications of immigration, noting that it is a fundamental aspect of American history over thousands of years. It takes on an unexpected note of wistfulness in the stridently anti-immigrant Trump administration.

And — so presciently that it seemed to be reactive — the January 26 premiere of “Scandal,” which filmed this summer, began by suggesting that a former First Lady would become the next president. At the last minute, it flipped the script so that a callous older man would won instead. (Our election, apparently, was a Shonda Rhimes-worthy twist.)

As the Trump administration works to put its stamp on America, television will catch up to the point where it is responding in real-time: “South Park” had to makeover its November 9 episode the very day after the election. In the meantime, shows that were in the pipeline during the election and interim period are debuting onto an audience with quite a different perspective. It doesn’t even have to be as topical as immigration, feminism, or racism; “The Good Place” finale, which upends the show’s world as we have understood it in a premise-busting twist, comes surprisingly close to approximating how the last few weeks of being an American have felt. Up is down, good is bad, and this nice place we’re in… maybe it is, in fact, hell.

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