New shows take different approach to politics ahead of 2020 U.S. election | CBC News

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New shows take different approach to politics ahead of 2020 U.S. election | CBC News

From The Handmaid’s Tale to Homeland, Designated Survivor to Madam Secretary, many TV shows are capitalizing on storylines ripped straight from the headlines — and typically pointing to the darker side of politics and government.

But during a highly charged election year in the U.S., and with Hollywood walking a fine line as it navigates a unique presidency and polarized nation, several shows are trying to find new ways to approach politics and spur audiences to consider their role in the democratic process.

“You don’t have to have a show about current events for it to be political,” said Charlie Keil, a professor with the University of Toronto’s Cinematic Studies Institute. “Sometimes politics work even better as allegory.”

The first season of the Emmy-nominated dark comedy The Politician explores the blurred moral lines as a wealthy, scheming Santa Barbara teenager runs for president — at his high school.

Ben Platt stars as a scheming high schooler trying to become student body president in The Politician. (Netflix)

Co-star Theo Germaine says while the series takes a humorous approach, it also delves into the mindset of those casting a ballot.

“We’ve gone into this to examine why they voted for who they voted for,” Germaine said.

The series is co-created by television heavyweight Ryan Murphy (Glee, PoseAmerican Crime Story) and stars Broadway star Ben Platt.

“It forces us to examine authenticity and what makes somebody authentic,” said Laura Dreyfuss, who plays a high school campaign staffer to Platt’s character. “So when we are trying to figure out who we want to elect as a leader, we need to examine who these people are.”

Theo Germaine, left, Julia Schlaepfer, centre, and Laura Dreyfuss, right, also star in The Politician. (Netflix)

Can’t escape reality

The Politician is one of several shows on the small screen taking inspiration from the current political climate in the U.S. while still trying to maintain a sense of fiction as Americans approach the November 2020 election.

Not too long ago, the most well-known political drama, The West Wing, took a much different approach: It seemed to idealize those in power.

“It elevated the role of the presidency and all of those in the White House,” Keil said in a Skype interview from Toronto. “And the president wasn’t seen as an obstacle to that. It’s almost like politics was a higher calling.”

Since then, portrayals have changed.

The dystopian Margaret Atwood novel-turned-series The Handmaid’s Tale has become particularly prescient after intersecting with #MeToo, the battle over women’s reproductive rights and anti-abortion laws. Veep, which ended this year after seven seasons, satirized the ins and outs of American politics as it followed a fictional vice-president trying to leave her mark while in office.

The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel and set in a fundamentalist theocracy where women and minorities are stripped of all rights. (George Kraychyk/Hulu via Associated Press)

While shows like Homeland have deliberately tried to reflect real-world drama every season, other politically minded TV series scrambled not to appear as though they were imitating real life after Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Shonda Rhimes, the creator behind the Washington, D.C.-based political thriller Scandal, said her storylines were unexpectedly starting to resemble reality.

There was the first female presidential nominee. Then, there was the unfiltered business tycoon running for president who wanted to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and crack down on migrants.

Kerry Washington starred in Scandal, whose storylines had to be altered, according to creator Shonda Rhimes, so as not to reflect what was actually happening in Washington, D.C., at the time. (ABC)

But when another storyline was supposed to reveal Russian election meddling in the U.S. — before it actually became headline news — Rhimes says she had to rewrite scripts the minute her imagination became reality.

“All of the sudden I realized we have to rebreak the entire back half of our season and turn it into something else,” she told the New York Times in 2017.

“No matter what we do,” she continued, “the audience is going to think we wrote the news.”

The series ended last year.

Showrunners from other political series that have also recently wrapped, including Veep and the dramas Madam Secretary and House of Cards, have also discussed the difficulty they had trying to avoid inadvertently mimicking the news in their final seasons.

Messiah

Messiah, which begins streaming on Netflix Jan. 1, incorporates multiple religious perspectives as it tackles larger geo-political issues affecting the U.S.

Executive produced by husband-and-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who have created such faith-based content as The Dovekeepers, The Bible and Touched By An Angel, the original series centres around a man who develops a following after seemingly performing miracles around the world but is seen by the CIA as an international conman and worldwide threat.

A look at a scene from the show Messiah. (Hiba Judeh/Netflix)

Bound to be controversial in part because of its portrayal of the Middle East and prophet-like central character, the cast of Messiah says part of the show’s purpose is to ignite compassion in a significant year for divided American voters.

“There are so many different opinions and it’s so easy to see things so black and white and point the finger and say, ‘Oh, you’re wrong,'” said actor Stefania LaVie Owen. 

When our society is being affected so much by politics, it’s our responsibility to comment on it.– Actor Laura Dreyfuss, The Politician

“The show allows an opportunity to see how one situation can have so many different perspectives and the audience is able to understand why and to have empathy for each character who believes differently.”

Keil says it’s unlikely any one show can actually sway voters in a different direction. But he does believe series that test a person’s ability to decipher right from wrong — such as the science fiction anthology Black Mirror and the dysfunctional family business satire Succession — could influence how their audience looks at technology, business and morality. And that might impact their views on politics, too.

The science fiction anthology series Black Mirror, which focuses on technology’s effect on society, often presents moral dilemmas that can get viewers thinking. (Netflix)

“When you’re dealing with the principles behind the political actions and what the repercussions might be of those principles being taken to their extreme, that can make people think,” said Keil.

According to Dreyfuss, that’s one of the goals of The Politician and its cast. 

“Yes, we’re entertainers and we’re artists, but we’re also citizens,” said Dreyfuss. “Our job is to reflect our society … so when our society is being affected so much by politics, it’s our responsibility to comment on it.”

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