Will Trump Put a Stop to TV's Progress on Diversity?

Creators behind some of TV's biggest shows have some difficult questions to consider after Trump's election.

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Complex Original

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About mid-way through Election Night last week, Joshua Safran, the creator of the ABC drama Quantico, tweeted one of the most accurate summations of our country in less than 140 characters.

How do we live in this country tomorrow? Half our population believes in denying rights to its fellow citizens. We have lost, no matter what

While many of us have been (rightfully) fixated on this problem, and what a nation will be like under president-elect Donald Trump and his penchant for peddling xenophobic fears against Muslims, Latinos and others, Safran and other creators like him have been dealing with a tangential problem. How do you continue to show an accurate depiction of America that almost half of the voting (and presumably, viewing) public apparently doesn’t want to see? The short answer is that it might still be too close to call: showrunners have spent the week grappling with the election results and discussing the best way to incorporate what this new reality means into their programming.

Safran tells Complex that he likes to describe Quantico as a “Trojan Horse,” as it can, sometimes subtly, highlight social and political issues while still giving the broadcast-viewing public the entertainment it so craves. The most recent episode included an elaborate interrogation and torture scene in the name of educating new CIA recruits on what it takes to break a suspect. Last season, it rather slyly did not make a big deal of the fact that it featured a Muslim woman in a full-body bathing suit. Safran doesn’t plan to change this strategy.

“It’s sad that we have to have this conversation, but the whole point of Quantico was to reflect the world around it that wasn’t always adequately represented on television,” Safran says. It’s worth noting that his series features a female lead played by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, and also includes a female Democratic president and other characters representing several racial, sexual and religious minorities. “The only thing that I care about is that it can inspire conversation and represent the way the world could look instead of the way it looks in this moment.”

Safran adds that, although he is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and was raised in the melting pot that is New York, he didn’t set out to make a show like this because he's gay or Jewish. "Forget even what I identify as," he says. "I really do want to reflect the world that my friends and I live in—the real world without blinders on.”

Series with less extreme plots and consequences than Quantico may also be in similar situations. Donald Glover told journalist at Television Critics Association last summer that he wanted to make his FX series, Atlanta, “to show people how it feels to be black.” That series, which received raves for its humor and its authenticity when it premiered this fall, joins comedies like CW’s Jane the Virgin, NBC’s The Carmichael Show, HBO’s Insecure, and ABC’s black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat as programs that are relatable to audiences whose skin tones don’t always match those of its stars without the use of outdated or limited viewpoints. 

black-ish creator Kenya Barris says he’s never gotten any flack for showing an African-American family who differ from the stereotypes we've been taught to expect. His characters are black, affluent, and happily successful, and he says if he did ever get any backlash for that, "I wouldn’t give a fuck because we’re not a monolithic people.” The issue now, he says, is “we need to be examining each other as a country and a culture and as a society … I definitely feel the future is at stake. It’s not about money or it’s about success, it’s about having a voice.”

To do this, it’s possible Hollywood might try to hit back at Trump’s offensive stances on immigrants by beefing up its casting of Muslims and Latinos—ironically, two minority groups who have frequently been ignored in the industry—says The Hollywood Reporter TV critic Daniel Fienberg.

“Given the political sentiments in Hollywood, creators are going to say, this is a political representation that we need audiences to see so that they understand that the immigration policies from the Trump administration are wrong,” Fienberg says. “I think it’s possible that someone will say, if we show audiences at home that this is a community that is American—that belongs here, that lives here, that exists here, that works here, that has families here—then maybe they will come to view them in a way that is better. I would love to see that, but that is also something that networks should have been doing previously.”

Fienberg adds that while TV creators may make strides to liberalize their content, it isn’t as if there is a marginalization of scripted TV aimed at conservative America. Just look to the alt-right Adult Swim series Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace or, to a lesser extent, simple basic network programming.

“CBS’s entire model is based upon catching as many different corners of the country that maybe aren’t being represented otherwise … and that’s what broadcast networks, in principal, are supposed to be doing,” says Fienberg. “Maybe the broadcast networks will remember the ‘broad’ part of their edict, but if you look back at last year’s pilot and development season, that’s what they were going for anyway. Either they sensed it was coming or else they realized that’s where their money is.” Fienberg doesn’t think “networks are going to let the Electoral College dictate their programming,” but that we could see more shows with a “conservative underpinning” like the counterterrorism-friendly plot of the 24 spinoff, 24: Legacy.

There is, however, one character trope that Hollywood might need to consider doing away with if we are going to get through this as a united country: That of the one-dimensional right-wing villain. “We cannot disenfranchise 50 million voters and say that they’re crazy no more than they can disenfranchise us,” says Barris. “That is a part that I’m completely determined to make sure that we look at in each other.”

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