For years, House of Cards has lured audiences in with its dark portrait of unscrupulous Washington schemers, while Veep‘s fanbase remains devoted to the outrageous White House satire. But what happens when the reality in Washington becomes as dramatic as fiction?
“The way the last 18 months — or 20 months now — went were so extreme that if they were our storylines, they would almost be over the top,” Neve Campbell, the Canadian actor portraying political strategist and campaign manager Leann Harvey on House of Cards, noted to CBC News ahead of the show’s fifth season debut.
“If we did some of the things this current administration has done and did during the campaign season, people would say ‘That would not happen. That’s crazy. You’d never see that in real-life politics,'” added co-star Michael Kelly, who plays White House chief of staff Doug Stamper.
“They’re outdoing House of Cards.”
Indeed, the writers of the Netflix drama will have trouble topping real-life drama unfolding regularly around U.S. President Donald Trump, said Robin Wright, who stars as First Lady Claire Underwood.
“Trump has stolen all our ideas for season six,” Wright quipped to industry publication Variety at a recent event at the Cannes Film Festival.
It’s unlikely, however, that writers would directly channel Trump’s currently chaotic presidency into their scripts, given that they’ve already created their own storylines, said Melanie McFarland, TV critic for Salon.
‘TV is escapism. There are very few times when I can look at something and say … ‘The one thing that I really, really want to see is a scripted version giving an indictment of [reality].’
– Melanie McFarland, TV critic
“TV is escapism. There are very few times when I can look at something and say to myself: ‘After everything going on, the one thing that I really, really want to see is a scripted version giving an indictment of [reality],” she said.
While some might compare Trump’s behaviour to Veep‘s bumbling Selina Meyer or perhaps note similarities to House of Cards‘s often angry Frank Underwood, that’s more a credit to the skill of TV writers, who have long been mining real-life politics for impossible situations and charting how they might actually happen, according to McFarland.
“When you think of what a writer has to do to keep things interesting — [they say] truth is stranger than fiction, but the fiction was pretty damn good [to start with].”
Veep showrunner David Mandel said Trump hasn’t substantially affected the award-winning comedy (freshly renewed by HBO for a seventh season) centred on perennial award-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s incompetent — and recently turfed — vice-president-turned-president.
“In some ways, she has been Trumpy for six seasons. So much of the show is her barging into things headfirst, saying the wrong thing, screwing up, getting caught, lying about it. If that’s not Trump, I don’t know what is. Everyone keeps asking, “Well, how has Trump changed things?” Trump, in a weird way, is sort of doing us. We’re not doing him,” Mandel told The Hollywood Reporter in April.
A riff on reality
Shows depicting Washington politics and the White House over the past 15 or so years have often offered an opposing portrait to the administration of the time, McFarland said — for instance, during George W. Bush’s terms, we watched an idealized, black commander-in-chief (with a Machiavellian First Lady) on counter-terrorism thriller 24 or followed The West Wing‘s well-read philosopher president.
For his part, Barack Obama’s two terms also inspired TV writers into imagining a different White House, from the dark vision of conspiracy-laden House of Cards to the female leader in Madam Secretary.
Successful shows of this genre don’t have to reflect real-life happenings. They’re typically created by a group of talented writers riffing on reality to address the current times in a relevant, resonant way, McFarland said. Having a stellar cast helps as well.
With Emmy favourite Veep, for instance, the “extraordinary” writers started with “what exactly does the vice-president do and [taken] it into this completely ridiculous direction,” she explained.
Meanwhile, acclaimed drama Homeland — co-created by a veteran of 24 and a cast led by Claire Danes — has focused on the relationships between CIA agents and taken a thoughtful look at international policy and how intelligence agencies navigate and clash against the White House, she said.
For its part, The West Wing ” was a combination of perfect timing and really great writing and an extraordinary cast,” according to McFarland.
Because of this, she predicts TV writers will continue to leave directly addressing Trump and his administration to their late-night and variety comedy peers. Instead, viewers can expect newcomers that might, for instance, take on politics but not necessarily the White House. One example is ABC’s upcoming comedy The Mayor, which follows an aspiring rapper who runs for office as a publicity stunt and finds himself elected.
These shows “will reflect Trump’s America, but also speak to where we are,” she said.