A History of Political TV

Anubhuti Kumar, Highlighter Editor

Scandal. Not long ago, the first thing to come to mind at this word would be the Shonda Rhimes show, with the Oval Office at the center of drama. Now it could just as easily evoke an image of the real life Oval Office that is also the scene of constant drama. Whether this is an instance of art imitating life or life imitating art it is certainly not the first time these two spheres collided.

The current administration seems like the first to trigger reactions like protest speeches at award shows and seasons of “American Horror Story” inspired by the last election. The current iteration of the entertainment industry is not the first to elicit strong reactions from the government. Before there was President Donald Trump wailing about ratings and fake news, there was controversy about TV shows portraying single mothers, gay characters and even married couples sleeping in the same bed.

Take “Will & Grace.” It was groundbreaking in its time, premiering in 1998 — a time when there was nearly no representation of LGBTQ characters on television. Just before “Will & Grace’s” premiere, Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom “Ellen” led to so much controversy and backlash that the show first was pre-empted with a parental advisory before each episode, and later was cancelled.

“Will & Grace” aired in the era of Defense of Marriage Act and conservative government, yet its depiction of nuanced gay characters on such a universal platform as network television changed perceptions of gay culture with its wide audience and long, popular run. Former Vice President Joe Biden went on to commend it for educating America. Since then, visibility and portrayal of gay characters have changed dramatically. In tandem to this change in the entertainment world, it has played a lasting part in the political world in securing basic human rights for the LGBTQ community, including that of marriage, and in the overturning of DOMA with its zany, political and biting one-liners on everything from pop culture to politics.

“Murphy Brown” is another example of of an eyebrow-raising sitcom. Featuring female news anchor Murphy Brown, its storyline of Brown choosing to have a child while unmarried and raising it on her own was apparently so scandalous that then-Vice President Dan Quayle felt the need to bring the controversy into the political arena by commenting on it during the 1992 presidential campaign. He claimed it minimized the importance of a father’s role. Spoiler alert: they didn’t win. This sparked a discussion in the public forum of American family values, all from the influence of one sitcom storyline.

“The West Wing” reflected the politics of its time and the era just past by depicting a notion of the idealism, youth and hope that the Clinton administration projected. “Parks & Rec” showed prescience by portraying a government shutdown three years before it occurred during the Obama administration. “Veep” lives as a parody of the incompetence that comes with government bureaucracy, and yet Julia Louis-Dreyfus claims that its biggest problem is that even its excessively absurd content cannot outdo that of the Trump administration.

“Scandal” had a season devoted to a competent, capable woman running for the presidency against a loudmouth, terrible creature parading as a man. In this alternative reality, the loudmouth did not make it past the primaries, and a woman won the office but not without backlash that led to violence, terrorism and deaths. “Designated Survivor” pres – ents a world where an inexperienced man ends up in the Oval Office, but is willing to be reflective and thoughtful, listen and learn more than speak and misinform, drawing a sharp contrast with reality. It demonstrates the truth through art that inexperience is not the same as incompetence.

Now a new crop of shows arises, one that is inspired by the Trump administration and feels the need to forewarn about the dangers of the floodgates the president and his accomplices open by rolling back Title IX or perpetuating white supremacy. “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of a dystopia where women’s rights are non-existent and “American Horror Story: Cult” takes the 2016 election as a starting point to depict a post-apocalyptic world that soon emerges.

Coming full circle, “Will & Grace” is back. The original is known for its influence in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and it is no coincidence that this TV icon resurfaces during another time in which political change is imperative. The revival even originated from a get out the vote ad by the cast for the 2016 election, and the very first episode took the starring foursome straight to the Trump Oval Office along with cutting commentary of the state of affairs. Clearly, television has been a reflection of political dialogue and served as a herald for change, and the realms of politics and art are only getting more intertwined.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 5 print edition. Email Anubhuti Kumar at [email protected].