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Real-Life Political Chaos Shakes Up TV’s Approach to Hot-Button Affairs

Veep” takes place in an alternate reality in which Donald Trump is not president of the United States. But it’s not a Trump-free zone.

“Somewhere along the way, the ‘Veep’ universe was our universe,” says executive producer David Mandel. Washington, Adams and their fellow white guys all the way to Reagan are part of the HBO comedy’s canon. But, says Mandel, “somewhere after Reagan, things change.” That means Trump was born, developed bone spurs and bought his first casino all before the timeline split.

“So I do think that it’s possible that Donald Trump exists in the ‘Veep’ universe,” Mandel says. “But I think he runs a shoe store on Long Island, and it’s not doing particularly well.”

That might be a comforting fiction for TV viewers fatigued by national politics and the relentless president-powered news cycle. But “Veep” isn’t meant to be a comfort. One of the Emmy-winningest series in television history, it premiered during the Obama administration as a bipartisan satire of ineptitude and self-dealing in government’s upper echelon.

Now, as ineptitude and self-dealing reach new heights in the real Washington, D.C., scripted showrunners are devising creative strategies for adapting.

“I’m definitely, for lack of a better word, rethinking a lot of things,” Mandel says. “Not specific stories but just people’s overall appetite for anything related to politics.”

Mandel and the show’s writers began work on what is set to be the final season of “Veep” last summer. With star and exec producer Julia Louis-Dreyfus recovering from a fight with breast cancer, Season 7 has been pushed to spring 2019 and won’t start shooting until August.

That has given Mandel time to get creative. The Trump administration, he says, is “breaking new ground daily” in areas “Veep” pioneered, such as “an often stupid president, a very incompetent staff and these huge public gaffes” that upend the news cycle without warning. “I’m not sure there’s so much appetite for some of those stories,” Mandel says.

Robert and Michelle King have had to do some similar reckoning. The executive producers just wrapped the Season 2 writers room for their CBS All Access drama “The Good Fight.”

Michelle King believes they’re “at an advantage” because Trump is present in their universe — unlike in other shows, whose fictional presidents are unable to believably match the unpredictability of the genuine article. “Because he is the president and we have characters that we already established as being very politically aware, it’s kind of a natural part of the storytelling,” she says. One episode this season imagines the lawyers exploring avenues for a potential impeachment of the president.

The Kings have worked from the beginning to keep up with Trump on “The Good Fight.” Scenes from the series premiere were rewritten and reshot after he surprised the Hollywood establishment by winning the 2016 presidential election. The first episode was reworked to reflect the disillusionment Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart would feel at Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

“Roseanne” (left), “Homeland” (center) and “House of Cards” have all woven headlines into storylines.

In Season 2, the Kings have stepped up their Trump game. Baranski’s character begins microdosing psychedelic drugs and is unable to determine whether the news stories she encounters are real. In one such scene, Trump is reported to be keeping a potbellied pig in the White House bathroom.

“I think 90% of the time we do anything it’s for comic effect,” says Michelle King.

Because “The Good Fight” engages the Trump presidency directly rather than via proxy, it risks running afoul of the news cycle. Writing for the second season began just as reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s predations threw Trump off the lead of many national news outlets for the first time since the election.

The approach the Kings settled on was to not try to satirize Trump’s specific movements across stages international, domestic and digital, but rather the anxiety he creates in his most fervent opponents.

“There’s the overriding arc of Diane’s reaction to the craziness of the world during this administration,” Robert King says. “It’s not all about the craziness of this administration. It’s more like how did you stay sane. That seems to be an evergreen in this cycle.”

The Kings say the writers room became a place for creatives to process the bizarre and fast-moving news of the day. “There’s a lot of debate in the writers room about things like the Stormy Daniels situation and the legalities behind it,” Robert King says.

And now that the room is closed, “I think the writers will be going through withdrawals,” says Michelle King.

Not all television viewers get the mean reds when thinking about Trump. In the wake of the election, broadcast programmers focused their energies on finding and developing projects that could appeal to the half of the electorate that put the candidate in office. The result of such efforts at ABC led to the revival of “Roseanne.” The family sitcom starring comic and conspiracy-theory enthusiast Roseanne Barr is now poised to finish the season as television’s highest-rated show, averaging through five episodes a 4.2 rating in the 18-49 demo and 15.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day numbers.

Others are using nonfiction programs to take on the political divide. Showtime’s “The Circus” accelerates documentary filmmaking processes to tackle political events in real time. Hulu’s “I Love You, America” with Sarah Silverman and Netflix’s “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” with David Letterman blend elements of talk, documentary and even variety formats.

Franchises “The Daily Show” and “South Park” continue to be the tip of the spear with which Comedy Central attacks politics. But the cabler has expanded its arsenal with “The President Show” and “The Opposition With Jordan Klepper.”

“I do think that it’s possible that Donald Trump exists in the ‘Veep’ universe. But I think he runs a shoe store on Long Island, and it’s not doing particularly well.”
David Mandel, ‘veep’ executive producer

Earlier this month, Comedy Central announced that it’s developing “Young Professionals,” a scripted series about five 20-something politicos living in Washington, D.C. The show is created by David Litt, who as a staffer in the Obama administration became one of the youngest White House speechwriters in history.

“I approached it in a way of how can we do comedy that holds out hope that we can actually all live together despite our divide,” Litt says of the show. “I don’t think you can do that in Congress these days, and I don’t think, frankly, you can do it at the highest levels of government. You can do it among people who are younger and are just starting out here, which is what we decided to do.”

But, Litt adds, Trump is “an aberration in our politics” who presents the media with a unique set of problems.

“I think it’s hard to separate what is normal and bad from what is abnormal and bad,” he says. “What is normal, although I don’t agree with it, is a new administration coming in and enacting its policy agenda, and to some extent trying to undo the things he didn’t like from his predecessor. What isn’t normal is the attack on the rule of law.” Litt cites Trump’s broadsides against former FBI director James Comey and the payoff made to Stormy Daniels by Trump’s attorney as examples.

The president’s aberrant nature was on the mind of “Homeland” executive producer Alex Gansa during the making of the show’s seventh and penultimate season, which concludes April 29 on Showtime. When “Homeland” began, it was rooted in the fight against Islamic terrorism. It has since evolved, with Season 7 focusing on a fictional president stepping beyond the law to accomplish her goals.

Parallels to the current state of national politics are not coincidental. Gansa and the “Homeland” writers make an annual trip to D.C., where they spend days speaking off the record with intelligence officers, politicos and journalists, mining potential material. But Gansa was worried about the show’s ability to remain essential in the Trump era.

“There were many moments in which we really feared this show wouldn’t feel relevant anymore,” Gansa says. “The extraordinary events that have taken place in the White House every day, that stuff that you couldn’t imagine happening just a few short months ago, now all of a sudden is transpiring right in front of your eyes. We felt like we were walking a very narrow line this season just in terms of how we were going to unfold the story.

“And frankly,” he adds, “we had no idea whether anybody would be interested in watching a show that focused on these areas — the White House, for one — while they were watching what was really going on at the White House.”

But Gansa has been gratified at the response to the current season. He sees television rising elsewhere to meet the Trump challenge — citing FX’s “The Americans” as a program infused with relevance.

He relishes the opportunity to use his own show to engage the current reality.

“It’s really exciting,” Gansa says, “as a writer and as someone who’s interested in these issues to be at work on crafting a story that comments in one way or another about what’s really happening.”

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