From ‘Scandal’ To ‘House Of Cards,’ Political Dramas Are Suffering In The Trump Era

Television is like a time capsule. Inevitably an era’s anxieties and priorities are reflected through entertainment. If we want to pinpoint what was going on socially, culturally and politically at any given moment looking to the kinds of shows that appear on television isn’t the worst way to do it. 

That’s why the new series that networks announced earlier this month as part of their 2017–2018 schedules can offer some insight into how Donald Trump’s presidency is affecting both what viewers are watching and the kinds of shows networks are programming.

Back in December, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told audiences at the Content London media summit that the network was questioning its programming philosophy in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.

“With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places,” she said. “There is definitely still room for that, and we absolutely want to continue to tell those stories because wish-fulfillment is a critical part of what we do as entertainers. But in recent history we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.”

Ratings might have prompted that kind of self-reflection as much as Trump’s win. Nearly every politically driven show on both network and cable TV ― “Scandal,” “The Americans,” “Homeland,” “Madam Secretary,” “Designated Survivor” and “Quantico” ― saw a decline in viewership numbers through the election season and dropped further after Trump won. 

Cable news networks enjoyed huge ratings increases ahead of the election and continue to see impressive numbers as news of White House scandals break nearly every week. But a network like ABC, which airs “Scandal,” “Quantico,” and “Designated Survivor,” is definitely feeling the effects of political fatigue.

“Scandal,” in particular, feels like victim of the Trump era. Though the show’s ratings had been declining since 2015, it wasn’t in danger of being canceled. After the election, creator Shonda Rhimes would often say in interviews that she no longer knew what to do with the series now that Trump was president — the on-screen scandals handled by Olivia Pope and her Gladiators were still far more dramatic than anything on the nightly news, but the latest season’s first few episodes, which aired right after Trump’s inauguration, forced viewers to endure yet another election narrative and relive the loss felt on election night all over again. 

Even after the runaway success of the show’s early seasons, the announcement that “Scandal” would end after its seventh season didn’t come as a surprise. 

“I used to know how it ended, and then Donald Trump was elected. We had a destination, and I don’t know if that’s our destination anymore,” Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter in April.

Similarly, she told The New York Times, “Our show is basically a horror story. Really. We say the people in Washington are monsters and if anybody ever knew what was really going on under the covers they would freak out. So they can do anything, they can murder people, they kill people and they get away with everything all the time.”

She added, “But that was based on a world in which Obama was president and our audience was happy about what was going on in Washington and they felt optimistic. You can always tell any horror story you want to when the light is on. But now the lights are off, and now I think people don’t want to watch horror stories, they want you to light a candle somewhere.”  

As for “Designated Survivor,” ABC’s freshman drama starring Kiefer Sutherland, the series premiered to strong ratings in September and then began hemorrhaging millions of viewers each week as the election drew closer and Trump won. Though the network wouldn’t flat-out blame ratings on Trump, Dungey came as close as she could.

“I think some of that has to do with White House politics fatigue … It’s challenging right now in terms of making political shows just in general because there are big changes afoot in the world we live in, ” she told Entertainment Weekly in January, adding that the network planned on delving into the characters and their relationships. Which is another way of saying, they’re going to focus less on hard political storylines and rev up the romantic ones. 

After all of this, it seems that ABC didn’t rethink its programing philosophy after all. Rather than focus on series that show the reality of life for “everyday Americans” ― code for Trump voters ― when the new crop of shows were announced, Vanity Fair wondered if the network, which canceled its conservative-leaning hit “Last Man Standing,” was actually “quietly trolling” Trump?  

Counted among ABC’s new shows is “The Crossing,” in which “refugees from a war-torn country seek asylum in a small American fishing town, only the country these people are from is America ― and the way they are fleeing hasn’t happened yet.” There’s also “The Mayor,” which follows a rapper who runs for mayor as a publicity stunt and ends up winning. Both shows feel pretty pointed ― Dungey even called “The Mayor” “a timely riff on current events” ― but what might be even more telling are the pilots that ABC passed on.

The network declined to pick up the comedy “Libby & Malcolm” from “Blackish” creator Kenya Barris. Felicity Huffman and Courtney B. Vance were set to star as “two polar opposite political pundits, who fall in love despite all odds and form an insta-family as well as a work partnership.” ABC also passed on “Red Blooded,” a new drama from showrunner Marc Cherry, which was set to star Reba McEntire as the sheriff of a small town in Kentucky, “who finds her red state outlook challenged when a young FBI agent of Middle Eastern descent is sent to help her solve a horrific crime.”

Not having seen either show, it’s hard to say anything about either one, but both shows sound a little too on the nose when it comes to the let’s-put-our-differences-behind-us rhetoric. Given that political dramas (and even political comedies, in the case of “Veep”) are faltering in the Trump era, it’s not shocking that ABC would pass on these series.

That’s not to say audiences aren’t still thrilled by politics ― they just made MSNBC No. 1 in weekly primtime viewers for the first time in history ― but viewers are understandably exhausted and want to keep politics out of their entertainment. Plus, if anyone wanted to watch “two polar opposite political pundits” who fall in love, they could just watch recently engaged co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski  bicker on “Morning Joe.”

Dungey previously told reporters that the current political climate was something ABC took into consideration when they crafted the fall schedule.

“There’s a lot of news, and I think people are definitely looking to television as a place where they want to feel — they want to laugh, they want to cry, they want to enjoy,” Dungey said during the network’s conference call before their presentation to advertisers earlier this month. “What the mood of the country has told us is that television is a little bit of an escape … That did frame a lot of our development thinking this season.”

If people are looking for an escape, that helps to explain why there are no less than eight superhero shows scheduled to premiere in the 2017–2018 season. “The Big Bang Theory” currently reigns supreme as TV’s  No. 1 show, suggesting audiences want to laugh more than they want to see political intrigue. “This Is Us” topped the charts among dramas, suggesting a yearning for stories focused on interpersonal relationships. Networks are doing their best in this new TV season to literally recreate the kind of programing that seems to be working ― see “Young Sheldon.”

The desire for some TV catharsis in the current political climate also explains why “Saturday Night Live” just wrapped its highest-rated season in years and why Stephen Colbert was just officially crowned the king of late-night for the 2016–2017 season. Audiences might be tired of watching what they perceive as a heavy-handed lecture on current events disguised as a soapy drama, but they are hungry for satire.

It’s been harder in the past couple of years at ‘SNL’ because the culture is so fragmented. If you do a parody even of a huge show like ‘Game of Thrones,’ it doesn’t have the full cultural resonance of a ‘Cheers’ or ‘Friends,’” “SNL” writer and “Weekend Update” co-anchor Colin Jost told The Hollywood Reporter of the show’s increased popularity. “Whereas politics right now is probably the closest we’ve come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time, and anytime people are paying more attention to politics, it’s good for our show. But you almost feel like a war profiteer at times because we’ve benefited from a situation that’s so tough.”

If politics feels all-consuming, then what becomes of the political drama? Shows like “House of Cards,” whose fifth season premieres on Netflix on May 30, are routinely being written off as “irrelevant,” with critics claiming writers couldn’t possibly come up with anything more outlandish than what’s actually happening in the IRL White House. Even Robin Wright, who plays Claire Underwood, recently joked that Trump stole all the show’s ideas for Season 6. Trump has yet to actually match “House of Cards” in its full absurdity, but there’s still time. 

With themes of nepotism, populism, voter suppression, constitutional crises, the possibility of impeachment and a growing body count, the fifth season of “House of Cards” is by no means boring, but it’s just not as binge-able in this current administration.

Netflix doesn’t release viewership data, so it’s impossible to know how many people have ever watched “House of Cards,” but its subscribers are probably feeling the same political fatigue that network and cable the viewers are experiencing ― something showrunners Melissa Gibson and Frank Pugliese acknowledge.

“Politics surrounding the presidency, in particular, has become more like a TV show than our TV show has become like politics, in a way,” Pugliese told HuffPost in a recent phone interview.  “So yeah, sometimes I feel like we are competing with a show that is on every day ― it’s the Trump Show. It’s 24 hours a day. But there is nothing we can do about that.”

The plot of “House of Cards” Season 5 isn’t ripped from the headlines — the show was already filming some of its last episodes on election day. But many of the show’s themes and plot points again parallel what’s actually happening in our government today and it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. If anything, viewing the show in the wake of Trump’s seemingly numerous scandals adds a layer of realism. It’s increasingly difficult to convince yourself the entire show isn’t a commentary on the current president.

Of course, Francis Underwood wormed his way into the White House long before Trump did.

I think we are uniquely positioned to be in dialogue with the real world,” Gibson told HuffPost when asked if she thought it was inevitable that viewers would try to connect the show to Trump. “But of course, our world is distinct and a really fundamental difference is that Francis Underwood came up through the system. He’s a through and through politician, who is of the system. He’s trying to explode it, but he’s trying to explode it from within. Whereas Donald Trump is a proud outsider trying to blow things up from the outside.”

There are many more differences between Francis Underwood and Trump ― one is one of the most articulate characters on TV, while the other has a vocabulary of about 67 words ― but this is part of Trump’s effect on TV. Suddenly everything is about him, even when it’s not.

“We’re just reacting to a moment in time both culturally and politically. The same moment in time that sort of created Trump and in a sense has created Francis,” Pugliese added. “So the similarities are there just because they came out of something that’s been going on for the last few years. In a way, Francis is talking about nationalism and populism seasons ago. So there has just been stuff in the air that we tapped into.”

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