With politics dominating television from the actual news to talk and sketch shows, some writers and producers of scripted fare prefer to deliver escapist storytelling as an antidote. For others, reflecting the state of the world is imperative in order to keep their characters rooted in reality. The balance then becomes about finding a way to introduce an issue or mention of a political candidate that feels organic for the characters, and not a lecture for the audience.
“You have this corner of the world you — and the writers — can influence with this show,” says Jennie Snyder Urman, “Jane the Virgin” creator and showrunner. “It helps combat some of the horrible and damaging rhetoric. [You provide] empathy, compassion and characters that people can relate to and understand.”
“Jane the Virgin,” Urman’s take on a telenovela for the CW, was inherently political from the start. It follows the Villanueva family, whose matriarch immigrated illegally. Throughout the five-season series, the show followed that character, Alba (Ivonne Coll), on her journey to get a green card, become a legal citizen and also help another illegal immigrant be able to travel in and out of the country to visit his sick mother by marrying him. While many scenes saw the characters studying for their exam and getting interviewed by a government official to prove the validity of their relationship, at the heart of the story was a budding romance between two people. They had started out in just a partnership of convenience, which kept it on-brand with the show’s themes.
“It’s always been important to us to dramatize the political, because you can ignore an issue, but you can’t ignore a person,” Urman says. “If it was coming from an outside element, it would feel more like medicine or didactic. We make sure every choice [is one] we can justify, that our character wants to make.”
Justin Spitzer has had a similar approach for his NBC workplace comedy “Superstore,” which has covered a treasure trove of timely issues, including, in its fourth season alone, cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes, unequal healthcare access, unionization and an ICE raid followed by the potential deportation of undocumented employee Mateo (played by Nico Santos).
“When we’ve done ‘issue’ episodes in the past, the comedy hasn’t generally come from poking fun at the issue itself, as much as the way people deal with the issue,” Spitzer says. He and his writers’ room often use character debates over different issues or jokes about characters who don’t understand the issues at all.
Even when dealing with an ICE storyline, Spitzer says the priority remained keeping sight of the show overall. Tonally, “the balance was 7.5:1, comedy to drama,” he says. “Much more than that, and the episode just turns into a relentless dirge.”
CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight” has leaned further into specific political figures, with Donald Trump and his family being important. However, while there was a Melania Trump impersonator in a pivotal third-season episode in which officials tried to determine if the Chicago-based law firm had the rumored pee tape in its possession, usually the pols figure off-screen.
Although the issues the legal drama deals with are dark, ranging from election-rigging to the NSA spying on citizens, “The Good Fight” co-creator and co-showrunner Michelle King says “it’s easier to dip into the absurdity of it instead of the actual tragedies that are happening.” Hence the use of a cartoon musical segment in each episode that broke down topics including NDAs and Russian troll farms in the vein of “Schoolhouse Rock.”
While those segments were “a little more biting,” says co-creator and co-showrunner Robert King, “it’s a very important time to not forget we do need to hold our leaders to satire.”