Escapism dominates at multiplexes. But on the small screen, dramas are channeling the zeitgeist in increasingly novelistic ways.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Mr. Robot” and “The Americans” have all tapped into unease about government activity, joining “Homeland” and “House of Cards” in that preoccupation, while “Orange Is the New Black” and “This Is Us” tackle social issues head-on.
Even “The Crown,” a period drama rife with political intrigue surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s ascendancy to the throne decades ago, has added resonance in the deeply politicized and sexually regressive Trump era. “Underground,” is based in the 19th century, but doesn’t seem dated when viewed against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests.
Thanks to these shows, and the fact that HBO heavyweight “Game of Thrones” is out of the running due to its production schedule, the Emmy race could get a lot more topical this year. As the late-night ratings attest, substance is being rewarded.
“Television shows are extremely good at being on top of how people in our society are developing psychologically and emotionally,” says Joe Weisberg, co-creator and co-exec producer of FX’s “The Americans,” a show that has a different impact in today’s Vladimir Putin-pocked times than when it launched in 2013. “Psychologically, shows are astute and sharp and emotional and tell you things and reflect things that are kind of mind blowing. You can turn on the TV now and a show will take you to a place that is stunning.”
That place need not be Washington, D.C., or the Middle East. Shows sometimes score big by going micro and not macro, as is the case with NBC’s “This Is Us,” which weaves together storylines of interracial adoption, body image/weight loss and the death of a child in an emotion-stirring but still comforting package.
“As we sat down to make the series, it became clear that these and other giant issues were at the center of the show,” says creator and showrunner Dan Fogelman. “So of course we did some research, brought some guest speakers into the writers room, and tried to explore these themes in responsible and realistic ways. But at the end of the day, if anything, we are writers and not sociologists. We feel we know this family, we know these characters, so we write how we believe they would react or behave in certain situations.”
For some shows, staying current means calling for rewrites, a complex and risky undertaking in an assembly-line business. Showtime’s “Homeland” was created in 2011 as a “conversation about America’s war on terror,” per creator and exec producer Alex Gansa. He did what he described as a “course-correction” during production of the most recent season, which finished production during the fall election season. In the last image of the season finale, “America First,” which aired in April, lead character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) stares at the U.S. Capitol, looking more disillusioned with the political power structure than ever before.
The show, which has been attacked from the left and the right for its perceived political tilt, “has clearly gone through an evolution,” Gansa says, particularly in terms of its depiction of Carrie. “She began her journey as a deeply patriotic convert and we have watched her move away from that point of view. Some people, some critics, especially on the right, suggest we have become politically correct. But what we’re doing is we’re telling the story of our lead character.”
Sam Esmail, who is the creator of USA Network’s “Mr. Robot,” has noticed a sea change.
“I wasn’t really a fan of TV when I was growing up,” he said. “The motivation of characters — every cop, lawyer, doctor — all they wanted to do was save people. Bad guys wanted revenge, money, power. There wasn’t that much gray area.”
Given his dim view of TV, he initially planned “Mr. Robot” as a feature film. But the story couldn’t be contained in just 100 minutes.
“I have been fascinated by tech since I was 16. I wanted to be a programmer at one point, wanted to be a hacker and got busted,” he says. He eventually wound up reading every book and blog he could get his hands on. Hackers, he says, “have a certain mentality. Even though they were criminals, a lot of the stories I read about them were not about pursuing any criminal interests.” Instead, “it’s a belief that you should be the judge and jury and to remake the world in your image. I didn’t really see that in the world of TV.”
“I wasn’t really a fan of TV when I was growing up. The motivation of characters. … There wasn’t much gray area.” Sam Esmail
Esmail half-jokingly calls “Mr. Robot” a “period show,” since it is set in 2015. “Any show about technology is by definition a period show,” he says.
Yet more traditionally defined period dramas, as “Mad Men” surely proved, can often tell us as much about the nature of society now as contemporary shows.
That was certainly the case with Netflix’s “The Crown,” which arrived just after last fall’s election.
Peter Morgan, the show’s creator and executive producer, recalls the widely held expectation that the season one storyline about the rise of young Queen Elizabeth would be a perfect meditation on female power just as President Hillary Clinton prepared to take office.
“We were making the show about a young woman trying to find her way. We thought that was a refreshing alternative to a reality TV star trying to seize control of the White House,” he jokes.
Morgan has drawn on history to tell stories with contemporary relevance. TV, given the financial resources of streaming services and networks trying to keep pace, now has its real crack at the history books.
“All you need is for current events to play out,” he says. “You just need to hold your course because people will make the links.”
“Underground,” on WGN America, and perhaps a different network in future seasons given the preference of new network parent Sinclair Broadcasting, is nominally about the Underground Railroad in the 19th century. In an era marked by police shootings and Black Lives Matter, though, it seems utterly contemporary.
“It’s amazing that you see cell phone video of these incidents and yet the country is divided in two parts — one that says ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ and the other that says ‘it’s always been happening,’” says Joe Pokaski, “Underground’s” creator and executive producer.
The real revolution, he adds, is being able to not just spotlight an issue or a historical moment in one episode, but to create a multi-season arc that can shine a spotlight on a whole range of related events.
Misha Green, creator and exec producer, agrees. “The long form of television has finally come into play.”
Joel Fields, co-creator and co-exec producer of “The Americans,” says television retains its initial defining feature of escapism. That box in the living room, even as it has evolved, remains a vehicle for experiencing other worlds, only now with a twist.
“You can still escape but you might escape into something dark,” he says. “Part of what’s great about the medium is that it has the potential to connect people. At its best, it can bring people together. Last season, we did an episode where characters watched [1983 TV movie] ‘The Day After’ together. That focused the attention of the people of the world on something that had been on the op-ed page and it made it feel experiential rather than intellectual. That’s an incredible power.”