The entertainment industry has rarely been shy to put politics under the lens.
In recent years, shows like “Veep” and “House of Cards” provided side-splitting satire and dystopian shock and awe respectively, before the current administration threw a spanner in the works. Now, creators are having to adapt to the new political reality and executives are having to program accordingly. With series like “The Loudest Voice” and films like “Brexit” out this year, featuring heavy hitters in Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts and Benedict Cumberbatch, it would seem that the entertainment industry is increasingly looking to dissect current affairs and recent history, searching for answers.
However, satirizing politicians and reflecting the political system is all well and good, but what difference will it make if only like-minded viewers are watching? A concern for many behind some of this year’s biggest politically-bent content is that of preaching to the choir.
After all, how many ardent Fox News fans or Trump supporters are going to seek out “The Loudest Voice” and re-consider their opinions? How many HBO viewers are going to tune in to “Brexit” and have the scales fall from their eyes when it comes to the bald-faced lies told by the Leave campaign in order to win?
“If we’re really honest, the expectation of a TV drama that goes out on Channel 4 in the U.K. and HBO in the U.S. is that you’re going to attract a progressive and majority remain-voting audience, majority liberal, so you start to ask yourself what is the purpose of the movie? Is it to satisfy the political opinions of that audience or to challenge them and show the other side,” asked “Brexit” writer and executive producer Matthew Graham.
“Brexit,” an HBO film commissioned by Channel 4 in the U.K., dramatizes the events leading up to the 2016 vote on British membership in the European Union, taking a deep dive into what happened over those fateful few months that led to a shock victory for the Leave campaign.
Graham originally centered the script around then Prime Minister David Cameron, whose genius idea it was to call the referendum in the first place. However, as the situation developed and Cameron faded into obscurity in the aftermath of the vote, Graham came to the realization that the most interesting character at the heart of the referendum was Dominic Cummings (Cumberbatch), the shadowy chief of the Vote Leave campaign.
“I increasingly think that modern politics is run by the more invisible, less familiar forces, whether that be data or social media or strategists. I felt it dramatically more exciting to put people on screen who are completely unaccountable, even though they affect all of our lives,” Graham said.
Against the backdrop of the Donald Trump presidency, Robert and Michelle King’s CBS All Access series “The Good Fight” is taking wilder political swings in season 3.
The Kings wouldn’t go so far as to deem the show “Trump bashing,” as they also go after the “limousine liberals in the Democrat party,” but they both worry about the impact “The Good Fight” could have on the more liberal-skewing audience who tune in.
“I think it’s good that the entertainment industry and the showrunners we know are reflecting things. I only worry sometimes that shows are preaching to the choir, I guess our show could be accused of that, this tendency to create a more fiery Democratic party or anti-Trump wing, because it re-instills in us the sense that we’re right and they’re wrong,” said Robert King.
The decision to make “The Good Fight” more political than its “Good Wife” predecessor came almost immediately after Trump won the election, according to the Kings. Setting the show in the real-world political sphere has allowed them to explore the reaction of “one particular citizen to changes in the body politic.”
In season 3, Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart is hit by the bombshell that her husband Kurt, played by Gary Cole, is being paid by Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump to go on a safari with them, while in a later episode Diane’s law firm is roped into a divorce case featuring a woman claiming to be Melania Trump.
“The difficulty doesn’t come from weaving real life politics in, it comes from not weaving it in,” said Michelle King. “Every day the writers’ room gets together and talks about what they’ve been reading and seeing in the news the day before and frankly what they find the most shocking and can’t turn their eyes away from. Given that it’s a group obsession, it’s a very natural flow from that to the show.”
Gabriel Sherman, a writer and executive producer on “The Loudest Voice,” is well aware of that fact that being on Showtime might not allow the series to reach a “conservative-skewing audience,” however, if the series can make any Fox News lovers “put aside their politics” and view Roger Ailes in a new light, he would consider it at least a “partial victory.”
“One of the core ideas of the show was to explain how we arrived at this cultural moment where our politics have become so divided and we ended up with a reality TV star, who was a weekly guest on ‘Fox and Friends’ as President,” said Sherman, whose 2014 biography of Ailes acts as a foundation for the miniseries. “This series takes audiences inside Fox News to show how the culture that Roger Ailes created at Fox shaped the wider culture in America that produced Donald Trump as President.”
“The Loudest Voice” shines a light on a figure who, by Sherman’s estimation, has affected American culture more in the last twenty years than anybody else. Showtime non-fiction programming EVP Vinnie Vinnie Malhotra said the network was attracted to the project “like a lightening rod” as a result.
“We understand how important not just the evolution of that network is and Roger Ailes’ personal story, but also where that arc brings us in terms of the current political climate and cultural climate that we’re in. It’s something we wanted to jump on immediately,” he said.
Malhotra feels it’s important for programming to “lean into and reflect” the current political situation in the U.S., given that “we are living in one of the most contentious political climates in our lifetimes.”
He and Sherman wanted to ensure they were striking a fine balance between illustrating the significance of Ailes’ rise and Fox News in relation to today’s politics, while also telling a compelling story.
“Roger Ailes was a real person, he had people that loved him, he was charming, he was witty. You don’t rise to the pinnacle of American politics and media if you’re just a two-dimensional villain, you have to show him as a three-dimensional, fully-formed human being so that when he does really despicable and loathsome things, we’re not just making him a cartoon,” Sherman says. “The impact of those actions is much stronger when the audience has an emotional attachment to the character.”
Viewers will likely be entertained, as well as horrified, by Ailes’ manipulative actions and the machine-like calculation of Cumberbatch’s Dominic Cummings. However, both Sherman and Graham agree that if such influential figures are going to be fairly tried in the court of public opinion as a result of fictional representations, their ideas and voices need to be heard out first.
“I have a long held belief that drama and art has a social responsibility to reflect and engage with the issues of the day, that can sometimes be difficult and of course you have to take a step back and ask when is it responsible to dramatize this real life event, these real life people who cause real life consequences,” Graham said. “I’m a remain voter, I didn’t agree with the messages of the leave campaign, so it was a privileged exercise for me to go and visit someone who I didn’t agree with and didn’t want to win, to ask them questions about why they thought they were right and why their campaign was the strongest. It was really important for us not to demonize these people outright. The best way to hold people to account and to prosecute them is firstly to give them a platform to defend and then you know what you’re attacking.”