“Law & Order” may have mastered the “ripped from the headlines” approach to storytelling, but given the swirl of news, it would be all but impossible for today’s showrunners to avoid it.
While many showrunners say they don’t subscribe to the “issue of the week” storytelling approach, they acknowledge that they have to reflect the culture in order to be “of their time.”
“Television affords us an incredible opportunity to address issues of the day and ‘Charmed’ will absolutely be tackling topical issues,” executive producers Jessica O’Toole and Amy Rardin tell Variety.
“It’s important to weave in stories that are relevant to our viewers and speak to life in 2018. Sci-fi and fantasy storytelling are traditionally rife with social commentary and ‘Charmed’ will follow that path. … We will also explore modern day issues as they affect our sisters in their everyday lives as millennial women of color navigating life in a small college town.”
The pilot episode of “Charmed,” a reboot of the 1998-2006 WB-turned-CW supernatural drama, dives furiously into the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. The script was written during the height of the movement’s launch, and the episode was filmed shortly after. But the issues within are still relevant as they “deal directly with workplace harassment and abuses of power in academia,” the producers say. The exploration of such gender politics will be a season-long theme for the new series, but it will also take on issues including reproductive rights.
The “Murphy Brown” revival on CBS will also take #MeToo head-on in a specific episode entitled “#MurphyToo” that looks at sexual harassment in the news culture after allegations against anchors including Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer came to light.
“I don’t think there’s a woman out here that hasn’t had some experience with misogyny or misconduct,” showrunner Diane English said at the Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the show in August. “It’s a powerful movement, and we wanted to do it justice.”
For English, there was never any question about whether to allow headlines to inspire stories. After all, the original 1980s sitcom was deeply political, aided by its Washington, D.C. setting. But the idea of a revival was first stirred up when Sarah Palin toyed with running for presidential office in 2012. The idea was revitalized last year given the Trump administration’s approach to the press, triggering Warner Bros. and CBS to officially make English an offer
“The First Amendment and free press is under attack like I’ve never seen before…and these guys are the press, so we deal with that a lot,” English said.
Immigration and the repeal of DACA were hot topics for series such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Fosters” last year, and that looks to continue this year, along with the idea of a border wall and complications with both reuniting migrant parents with their children and obtaining or renewing passports.
“No viewer likes to be lectured to, but at the same time it’s important to me as a storyteller to explore topical themes that speak to the human condition,” says Jeff Rake, whose new NBC drama “Manifest” explores the stories of key passengers who disappeared on a flight in the early 20-teens, only to return five and a half years later without having aged at all. “Despite the sky-high-concept premise, the difficulties many of the characters face are real-world problems.”
The new season of “Last Man Standing,” now airing on Fox, is a rare series where its central character is explicitly conservative (given that “Roseanne” will be reimagined as “The Conners” without its star). “Being that Mike is a political animal we will comment on the state of the country from both sides in some way almost every episode,” showrunner Kevin Abbott says. “Specifically we will be dealing with the impact and discord that the election has sown within families, the increasing displacement of workers, immigration and how the rest of the world views America. Mike’s views as a pro-business Republican will sometimes align with the current regimes but will also differ in other key areas.”
“The Resident” tackled immigration and #MeToo in the first season; showrunner David Harthan says the debate over health care will factor into season 2. “Our villain is not a doctor but a money driven force that hurts both doctors and patients,” he says. “Medical error remains the third leading cause of death in this country. We try each week to shine a light on something patients need to know to help them navigate the system safely.”
Harthan believes “there is no issue more topical than the problems in health care” because “one fifth of all spending in the country is on health care.”
But the goal, rather than to take an explicit partisan stance, is to showcase how it is a human issue, with rising drug prices, concerns over adequate care and insurance availability and affordability affecting those on both sides of the aisle.
“Congress and the White House [are] planning to once more eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions. Both parties are complicit in this,” he says. “It’s not a red or blue issue. It’s a red, white and blue issue.”
Other dramas including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Chicago Med” are of course also tackling health care, as will comedies such as “Shameless” and “Superstore.” This season, the opioid epidemic will hit close to home for a central character on Hulu’s mission to Mars drama “The First,” while the fictional drug green light runs threatens to destroy a city in the second season of the CW’s “Black Lightning.”
Racial issues, including police brutality and prison reform, are also making their way to the screen on shows like Fox’s “Empire” and “Star,” ABC’s “Black-ish,” and even the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and Starz’ “Outlander.”
“We have an early episode about Dre’s dilemma as a homeowner who is also a Black homeowner: when do you call the police, and on whom, if there’s something going on in your neighborhood, knowing that there are ramifications and risks depending on who is getting the dime dropped on them?” reveals “Black-ish” executive producer Jonathan Groff.
For “Outlander,” a show about a “woman out of time,” the fourth season will find Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in America, encountering slavery. “We’re seeing it through her eyes — a modern woman seeing the horrors of slavery firsthand, knowing how long that curse will tear at the fabric of our nation,” say executive producers Toni Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts. “So she does something about it.”
But other shows are avoiding cementing their storytelling in current events altogether.
“We purposely avoided topical references,” says “The Good Cop” showrunner Andy Breckman. “We wanted our series to have a ‘timeless’ quality, the same way Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes mysteries do.”
Similarly, Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang, who co-created Amazon’s new relationship dramedy “Forever,” didn’t want to get “expressly topical.” But they don’t think tapping into broader questions of the human condition make the show any less poignant or important at this time — or any time — in history.
“I think all of us are struggling with some fundamental questions: Are people good or bad? Are humans moving toward unity or disorder? Is this the end of it all or the difficult start of a new era where we all behave a little better?” they explain. “I think that fear and uncertainty are something we tried to contend with in the series.”