Fictional political TV shows face dilemmas as reality outpaces anything they could imagine

Eight days into filming the pilot of CBS’ Web-only series “The Good Fight,” the U.S. got a new president: Donald Trump.

“We ripped things up and started all over again,” notes Robert King, who with his wife, Michelle, are showrunners on the series. In the original pilot, Diane (Christine Baranski) was delighted to see Hillary Clinton shatter the ultimate glass ceiling; in the rewrite, she stares gape-mouthed at the TV as Trump is inaugurated.

“It was a joke at the top of the episode,” King continues. “And we moved on from there.”

Series like Netflix’s “House of Cards,” CBS’ “Madam Secretary” and HBO’s “Veep” regularly take us into fictional versions of the White House, while others, like “Berlin Station” on Epix, Showtime’s “Homeland” and “Good Fight” deal with the intelligence and legal communities affected by politics and the administration. Yet none of their showrunners planned to be running a writers room in a world that had put a real estate mogul/reality show star in the highest office in the United States government.

So how do you write about a fictional White House when the real-world version is beyond anything you might have considered putting on TV?

There are practical matters: “Veep” showrunner David Mandel says they had to nix a “golden showers” joke from the new season because a real-life discussion had already made national news. But they kept a story in which Selena (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) oversees an election that “gets very Russian with bribery and people trying to kill other people” that was written nearly a year ago.

“Comedy doesn’t age well,” Mandel says, illuminating an issue all writers rooms face: A now-current event can seem stale by the time the riff on it airs. “The notion of doing a character based on Trump — a rich guy who got into politics — a year from now” wouldn’t play, he says, “and that alone stops us from doing it.”

Meanwhile, it was hard to watch this season’s “Homeland,” which featured a female president-elect (Elizabeth Marvel) battling with her intelligence advisors and not imagine that the character was written with Hillary Clinton’s expected election in mind. “The whole world assumed Hillary would win the election,” says showrunner Alex Gansa. “But we didn’t want our president to be Hillary Clinton; we wanted her to be her own person.”

“House of Cards” showed the dark underbelly of D.C. politics for four seasons before the 2016 election, and may have primed viewers for today’s world. But showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson see other antiheroes who have actually set the stage for the normalization of our current White House. “You have Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano — they're all ‘bad dads,’” says Pugliese. “Right now, we might have the biggest bad dad of all in the White House.”

Yet showrunners do feel an imperative to reflect the great changes going on in American politics one way or the other. “The trick is to do it without turning your audience off,” says Gansa. “Frankly, what’s happening in the real world is scarier to me than anything we’re dramatizing on ‘Homeland.’”

“In the immediate wake of the election I did not want to dive into a political grudge match,” says “Berlin Station” showrunner Bradford Winters. “But we slowly realized we had no choice but to speak to the reality. There is a certain civic duty to at least try and deal with some of the issues.”

“Madam Secretary” showrunner Barbara Hall, who points out her show exists in a world that’s five years ahead of the real one, says she wants to keep an optimistic viewpoint. “We feel we have a unique opportunity to show a system of government we’d like to believe is possible. Maybe it’s not that people aren’t interested in how government works; maybe it’s that they’re not exposed to depictions of how government should work."

All of this questioning about where shows should head next does leave room for a lot of storyteller soul-searching. “This conversation isn’t limited to the effect on shows that involve politics,” says Gibson. “Our whole culture is being asked what are the limits of acceptable behavior — and we're all grappling with that question, on TV or not.”

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