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Politics Dominated TV Shows in 2018 — but Precious Few Got It Right (Column)

Though it had plenty of competition, one of the most irritating reactions to Donald Trump’s presidential victory was, “hey, at least it’ll be great for artists.” The reasoning, so far as “reason” even exists anymore, was that hard times can beget great art by inspiring creative people to find ways out of tight corners with ingenuity they might not otherwise have discovered within themselves. It’s not entirely untrue, but so far as silver linings goes, it’s a particularly bleak one.

The reactions to Trump, from the moment he descended an escalator to announce his candidacy to whatever fresh hell he’s up to today, have largely been clumsy and blunt in the attempt to match his aggressive personality — and TV has been no exception.

As the very medium that launched Trump’s celebrity in the first place, television has scrambled to keep up with him. Cable news became even more extreme and dire, applauding and denouncing his actions while moving the goalposts for him at every turn. Interviews, no matter who they were with or what they were about, made sure to include a question about “The Age of Trump” in order to get enough attention. Procedural dramas, used to gleaning storylines from juicy headlines, nonetheless struggled to find topics that Trump’s hyperactive news cycle wouldn’t immediately render stale. Even “Roseanne,” which returned to TV with an admirably frank portrayal of a politically divided family, quickly fell apart amidst the real life melodrama that was Roseanne Barr’s Twitter.

The strain of trying to synthesize what’s happening on the national stage is playing out in real time on our TV screens, and more often than not, it’s just too blunt to shed much insight on a dark time that desperately needs it. (Here’s looking at you, Sacha Baron Cohen and “Saturday Night Live”!)

That makes it all the more remarkable when TV does get it right. Looking back at 2018, some of the year’s best scripted shows reached their heights because they managed to react to The Way Things Are with wit, urgency, and most importantly, nuance. Given how much oxygen Trump tends to take up the second his name is uttered, it’s not too surprising that TV’s most successful attempts to handle politics did so by sidestepping him altogether. It’s not that these shows pretended like Trump didn’t exist, but they didn’t need to explicitly mention him in order to react to the ripple effects of his presidency.

On “Vida,” gentrification and disdain for Mexican traditions formed a crucial backbone for the show and its conflicted heroines. On “One Day at a Time” and “Jane the Virgin,” Latinx protagonists had to face racists emboldened by right-wing rhetoric to be far more obvious about their bigotry. Immigrant grandmothers felt the urgency of their undocumented status like they never had before, working to become U.S. citizens by navigating the complex process and their even more complex feelings surrounding it. “Superstore,” which also has one of the most prominent undocumented characters on TV, deals with politics by folding it into everyday situations that ring truer to life than any shoehorned Let’s Talk About Politics storyline ever could. None of these shows ever mentioned Trump, but all implicitly addressed his words and policies by telling personal stories about the people affected by them.

Other shows tackled the era by digging into the unsettling feeling of living and trying to move forward through total chaos. “High Maintenance” had one of the best episodes of the year with “Globo,” which traced the interlocking lives of shell-shocked New Yorkers after an unnamed catastrophe that leaves them dazed, grieving, nihilistic, and to their surprise, optimistic. And while “The Good Place” usually only addresses our reality when it thinks of a particularly good pop culture joke, its third season on Earth has made the show’s mission statement even clearer and more relevant. Halfway through the season, the characters realize that they’re doomed, and that “in America everyone does what they want [and] society did break down,” they double down on trying to be good people in a sea of awful for the sake of making anything just a little bit better. Both shows flew off the rails to reflect the world they came from, and in doing so, tried to find a new way to live in it.

So many shows were so much more successful with politics by eschewing Trump, in fact, that I was beginning to believe TV couldn’t directly engage with him and work at all — and then I watched “The Good Fight.”

Currently marooned on CBS All Access, “The Good Fight” was originally conceived of as a spinoff of “The Good Wife” that would follow a triumphant Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) kicking ass in the age of President Hillary Clinton, even while married to a Republican gun owner. When Trump won, however, creators Robert and Michelle King had to rethink everything — but they ended up honing one of the sharpest Trump era shows, period.

This was all true of the (very good) first season. But in the second season, which aired this year, “The Good Fight” became borderline resplendent in its exaggeration of true life. Every episode is named for the corresponding day of the Trump administration (“Day 478,” “Day 485,” etc.) to emphasize just how long the new world order has been in place. Its ripped from the headlines stories covered everything from white supremacists rallies to sexual assault to the likelihood of impeachment. An influx of inexperienced Trump appointee judges make everyone re-adjust their courtroom strategies, while a rash of violence aimed at lawyers keeps everyone on edge, looking around every corner for the next possible threat. At one point, Margo Martindale (playing a DNC power player) puts on her best furrowed brow and watches a potential tape of Trump at a Russian hotel in a … compromising position. (Yes, that tape.)

And yet, the best and weirdest moments of season 2 came from Diane’s rapidly fraying nerves. Fighting a cable news addiction and constantly slack-jawed in disbelief, Diane’s view of the world becomes more muddled and chaotic to match what she’s seeing. Diane even dips into a brief affair with microdosing that leads her to question the bounds of reality. She sees people across from her office having sex while wearing Trump and Clinton masks; her nightly news digest becomes a backdrop of escalating weirdness, with cheeky reports like that of Trump adopting a pet potbelly pig. But as Diane says with a burst of panicked laughter, none of this is so ridiculous given the bizarre turns these last two years have taken. Why wouldn’t there be a literal pig in the White House, after everything else?

Had Clinton won, it would no doubt have been a treat to see Baranski and her vulpine smile rip into Diane’s victory speeches. But it has been undeniably fascinating (and relatable) to watch Diane dig into her confused rage as she grapples with a world she doesn’t recognize, a world she thought she knew and can’t understand. She isn’t exactly a universally relatable character, having wealth and status many never will. But in those moments of gaping at the news and wondering what the hell is happening and if there’s anything she can do to fix it, “The Good Fight” nonetheless finds a way to make her a definitive avatar of a time that otherwise refuses to be defined.

There’s truly no telling what 2019 will bring us. But if it’s anything like 2018, the frustration, exhaustion, and glimmers of unexpected satisfaction that shows like “The Good Fight” portrayed so well should remain relevant no matter what.

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