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Governmental Issues Take Hold of Small Screen Fare

Perhaps it’s because of the never-ending news cycle fueled by social media, or maybe it’s the advent of so many options thanks to peak TV, but this is an era in which scripted television has been influenced a lot by headlines from around the globe. That puts this period up there with the ’70s, which were a watershed time thanks to the contributions of Norman Lear and James L. Brooks, and earlier this century, when television programs found it hard to ignore the new realities post-Sept. 11.

These days, whether it’s “Black-ish,” “Will and Grace,” “Atlanta,” “One Day at a Time,” “Scandal” or “Homeland,” there is hardly a network or streaming service without a show commenting on the zeitgeist.

Michelle King and Robert King are no strangers to weaving the pressing issues of today into their work.
They made viewers take notice with the Emmy-winning “The Good Wife” and the election of Donald Trump was impossible to ignore with their spinoff, “The Good Fight.”

In the case of the latter, Michelle King notes that it’s the characters that drove them in that direction.

“We had long established Diane [Christine Baranski] as a devout liberal and we just knew that what was going on in the world was going to be impacting her psyche, and we wanted to see how that played out.”
The second season of the CBS All Access program featured, among other storylines, Diane’s law firm being recruited by the Democratic Party to work on an impeachment case, the infamous “golden shower” tape and an employee being put through deportation proceedings after a routine traffic stop.

For Robert King, it’s always important that an episode be more about the impact the headlines have on a character as opposed to the headlines themselves.

“Even in the episode about impeachment, we largely have the firm taking on the behaviors that they were angry about,” King explains.

“So, it felt like a psychologically interesting and very current thing to do, which was to examine the reaction that people have to the quick news cycle and so many changes in political norms that are going on.”

Unlike most streaming shows on Amazon or Netflix, “The Good Fight” has a traditional broadcast production schedule, releasing one episode a week, and is still in production months after the season has begun airing.

And while there is enough time to attempt to make a change to an episode because of breaking events — ADR was used in the “shower” episode after it popped back up in the news, for instannce — writers try to find topics that won’t fade away.

Christine Baranski’s character drove the direction of “The Good Fight” on CBS All Access.
Courtesy of CBS

“One of the evergreens was that the Republicans were accusing the Democrats of having deranged Trump syndrome,” Robert King says. “The sense of not being able to hold on to your logical mind because you’re so angry about a president.

“And the Democrats were, at least among a lot of our friends in another writers’ room, really passionate about impeachment, so that was one. It [also] always felt like sex and the distraction of the porn stars and so on, would always be an evergreen.”

Michelle King adds: “I think sometimes you just luck into currency, but you try to pursue things that you think will always constantly be on the front headlines.”

For Justin Simien, the second season of “Dear White People” provided an opportunity to expand on the social and political issues that made critics and audiences applaud the Netflix adaptation of his 2014 film.

Along with his writing staff, Simien decided to fashion something inspired by what’s going on in the world, but wouldn’t specifically be based on historical headlines.

“It’s a very urgent time, so I wanted to respond in a relevant way that added to the conversation that people are trying to have right now, as opposed to just distracting from it or trying to create a bunch of noise,” Simien says.

“You just luck into currency, but you try to pursue things that you think will always constantly be on the front headlines.”
Michelle King

“I really wanted to try my hand at just diagnosing the moment that we’re in. That was sort of the big goal, and, of course, I wanted to up the ante and give people who were fans of the series really, really something to chew on.”

That being said, there were some references that popped in the second season, such as a line about a Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama presidential ticket, and one episode in which the series’ main character, Samantha (Logan Browning), calls out the names of the black kids that have been shot by cops on her radio show.

And sometimes the show ended up being current and topical completely by accident, which Simien admits was “horrifying.”

“The Rikki Carter character [Tessa Thompson], I think at first blush you might think, ‘Oh, that’s a version of [conservative commentator] Candace Owens,’ but I had no idea who that was, until Kanye started tweeting about her,” Simien says.

“So, you know, in some ways it’s pretty scary, but also somewhat gratifying that we, even though we aren’t ripping from headlines, we are hitting on something that’s true.”

Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” hit a nerve with many viewers in its first season, presenting an authoritarian future in an America not as far from the current reality as many would think.

With most of the events in Margaret Atwood’s celebrated novel taking place over the first season’s 10 episodes, showrunner Bruce Miller and his writers had an opening to find more inspiration from today’s political battles while creating the second season.

Hulu’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” was inspired by current events in fashioning the sophomore season.
Courtesy of Hulu

Executive producer Warren Littlefield is quick to note, however, that the show is “not MSNBC,” and that the job of the creatives, first and foremost, is to create “a compelling narrative.” even if the writing staff is “very up to date on events throughout the world.

“We’re starting from a thematic that Margaret gave us, right? Which is a battle for human rights and feminists rights in a dystopian world,” Littlefield says.

“Unfortunately, the world we’re currently living in feels a little pre-Gilead, and so, how’s that inform what we do? Well, the writing staff looks at fascist regimes all over the world and sees that as a form of torture and death that they sometimes make a statement,” he says.

And, he says, these regimes choose pubic arenas and soccer fields to make a statement with their victims.

“That led us to [realize] our world is centered in the Boston area and we have the holy cathedral that is Fenway Park. Maybe that’s a statement.” he explains. “And so that really informed how we ended up there in the first episode [of the second season].”

While the show tries to create a world that feels real and chilling, writers don’t want to turn into the news. “We don’t want to just do a platform,” Littlefield says.

“We’re trying to create a dramatic journey in every single hour that we make that is compelling and fascinating obstacles for our characters,” Littlefield says.

“We say a lot, we wish we were not as relevant as we are, but we kind of are, so there we go.”

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