Trumwill’s (still evolving) First Law of Television Republicans is that Republicans exist in popular entertainment largely to enhance the liberal worldview. They do this by being out-and-out villains, inept foils, turncoats, or “Good” Republicans who spend an inordinate amount of time as a tool against “Bad” Republicans. The law is sometimes broken – particularly in the area of comedy, and also sometimes where actual politics are irrelevant – but it’s true a remarkable percentage of the time. It is particularly true when dealing with inherently political stories (stories with politicians or that deal largely with political issues).I’m not intending to bring up the perennial argument about whether “television and movies” are liberal or not. By focusing primarily on inherently political stories, I am hoping to avoid that because I think there is less disagreement on that. Most of the disagreement is why, whether it’s because of some insidious Hollywood agenda or because capitalism and/or good stories demand it or something in between. I tend to think it is mostly (but not entirely) something in between. Namely, that when an overwhelming portion of the decision-makers lean in a particular direction, it inherently finds its way into the product whether it’s intended or not. I don’t think it’s a whole lot easier for mostly white, male, liberal talent (writers, producers, decision-makers) to separate the “liberal” from their work than it is the “white” or “male.”
Perhaps (maybe) to Hollywood’s credit, though, they do seem to try sometimes. In an article about female presidents on television and their (alleged) Republican leanings, Serena Elavia writes the following:
I would take issue with the second paragraph, but I do think that is sometimes how the writers and showrunners see themselves. Rather, I think in an effort to prevent things from being too cut-and-dried, they do throw the “R” label into the soup for male and female presidents. A problem with the subject of the Elavia’s piece is that almost none of the listed characters are actually Republicans. Two are left ambiguous, and one is the explicit independent Vice President of a Republican president who dies (and who spends the series butting heads with an evil Republican, played by Donald Sutherland). But I think what’s described does touch on why the producers of Scandal made President Fitz Grant a Republican. Grant’s politics were not supposed to be central, and so why not? I don’t know whether it made the show better or worse. It might have helped them keep partisan issues on the side rather than allowing them to drift front-and-center. But it seems to me like it was unsuccessful. To prove that Grant was “good”, he spent a good deal of his time fighting other Republicans, expressed social views that made it unlikely that he could ever get the Republican nomination, and forced them to do a pivot in his re-election bid so that he could be the more progressive of the two main candidates. It seems to me that it would probably have been more fluid to simply say “Yeah, he’s a Democrat, because the stories we want/need to write need him to be.” (And the stories do, for the most part.) And so we get to House of Cards, where I think they made the same decision, in the opposite direction, for the same reasons. In the British version of House of Cards, Frank Urquhart is a Tory, through-and-through. Given that, and given Frank Underwood’s cultural affectations and background, it seems very logical for Underwood to be a Republican. At some point, I suspect that they looked at the story they wanted to write and said “You know, making this guy a Republican will make this more partisan. Let’s make him a Democrat.”
In an electorate where women are more likely than men to vote Democratic, why would all of the female TV presidents be Republican or centrist? The short answer is: It’s not a conspiracy. Showrunners and writers serve three masters when creating a show, says the producer Tom Nunan. They have to figure out what provides the most conflict in a series, what’s the most unpredictable thing a show can do, and what might be predictive about culture. A Republican female president adds an element of unpredictability that wouldn’t be achieved by writing a carbon copy of Hillary Clinton or Senator Elizabeth Warren.
According to Nunan, the vast majority of writers are left-leaning and usually create characters that represent the opposite of their own political beliefs. Because there have only been so few female presidents on TV, it appears to be merely a coincidence that most of them have been Republican.
I’d gone back and fourth on whether or not this was a good decision. On the one hand, I can imagine ways that it would have been worse without the Democratic limitation. It did prevent any commentary on it being about “This is who the Republicans are” (The British version may have been so limited by the fact that it was written by a Conservative.). On the other hand, given how they populated the character’s backstory, it seems like that might have actually been the story they wanted to write. They could have made Underwood susceptible to as many ugly liberal stereotypes as they made Urquhart Tory ones, but they didn’t. They gave him a GOP background and slapped a “D” on him.Still maybe better than giving him that background and putting the “R” on him… at least until the third season. With Underwood having ascended to the presidency, I think the writers (or producers or whoever) simply couldn’t help but use issues near and dear to their hearts and turn it into a darker West Wing. Crises of conscience as they weigh gay rights against political expediency, trying to find peace in the Middle East, and a robust jobs program (albeit with entitlement cuts). But given who Underwood is supposed to be, it simply didn’t work. They seemed to have difficulty making him a full-throated villain in a way that I suspect they wouldn’t have if he was a Republican. Yes, conservatives would have howled at this being another example of liberal Hollywood bias, but it sure would have been more entertaining and could have made it more true to the concept. Or perhaps not. Hollywood enjoys certain narratives that transcend politics, and one of them is that of redemption. Americans love redemption, or at least our storytellers love stories of it. While David Brent sunk ever-deeper into the swamps of narcissism, Michael Scott went from one of the darkest characters of sitcom television to a doting father we are all happy for. Along these lines, it could be difficult for Hollywood to resist a redemption narrative regardless of Underwood’s party affiliation. Indeed, being an evil Republican could easily transition into a particular redemption narrative that gets its own corollary to Trumwill’s Law, which is that conservative characters most frequently redeem themselves through non-conservative and anti-conservative action. Nowhere is this more apparent on the more unapologetically partisan show, Alpha House. This Amazon show is a Gary Trudeau production, with all that it implies. And yet, it is probably the most Republican-friendly political show in recent memory by virtue of the fact that it actually has a cast of more human Republican characters than I am accustomed to seeing. And, unlike with Fitz Grant, they’re more genuinely Republican characters. The political jokes are almost uniformly at the expense of these Republicans and particularly their party, but the characters also have a bit of a light touch. In at least three of the four cases, their decency is reflected in their ability to buck their own party, confront its activists, denounce how their party operatives operate, and take more liberal stances. And, as is often the case, the main rivals and antagonists are Tea Party Republicans.
Arguably, at least, the redemption narrative and the liberal politics of most political shows share in common a sort of narrative stick that can be hard to get past. Which is perhaps another reason that until or unless these stories run their course – and they could never – they should simply accept their limitations and run with them. In 2000, Jonathan Last wrote the following for Salon of West Wing:
So how does “The West Wing” manage to be politically didactic and entertaining at the same time? And why isn’t there a Republican version of “The West Wing”? The answer, of course, is that there couldn’t possibly be a Republican version. Liberals can do drama well and conservatives can’t.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but, generally, when liberal politics intersects with dramatic entertainment, the results can be pretty good. TV drama in the ’80s was dominated by “St. Elsewhere” and “L.A. Law,” and today by “The Practice” and “The West Wing.” When conservatives do drama it comes out as “The A-Team” or “Red Dawn” or “The Omega Strain” or, even worse, “Rambo.”
Liberalism and conservatism each have distinct roles to play in civil society, and this explains why one makes for drama and the other makes for comedy. Democracies change, historically speaking, at a very fast pace. Liberalism is the engine of change; it always seeks to push the culture forward, to advance and evolve. Sometimes it brings about good things (like the abolition of slavery) and sometimes it brings about not-so-good things (like forced busing). But it is always fighting to move beyond the status quo. And eventually liberalism wins because the status quo does change. This Sturm und Drang is the stuff of great drama: It tells of brave struggles that give way to glorious accomplishments.
I’m not sure if this indeed narrative stick, a product of the differing contemporary social temperaments of the right and left, an inevitable truth, or not actually very true at all. I do suspect that if conservative political entertainment were to succeed, it would do so with a more comedic bent. It’s comparatively easier for me to imagine a conservative Alpha House than a conservative West Wing. It doesn’t have to be this way, necessarily, as liberal cop shows demonstrate that you can go against type – successfully – and (of all movies) Frost/Nixon gave a glimpse of what a conservative presidential dramedy might look like.
Even setting aside some of the Hollywood barriers I believe would stand in the way of such a project, it would require talent to write it and produce it, and conservatives have done a pretty lousy job of cultivating that talent. The primary culprits in this lopsidedness are conservatives themselves. Which is to say, this is not something I see changing any time soon and all the conservative railing in the world won’t change that. And I’d argue that outside attempts to pressure Hollywood by carping and complaining won’t do much more than nudge to superficial compromise that ultimately compromises the product. As it stands, Hollywood seems incapable of escaping the narrative stick. Or uninterested, which amounts to the same thing in this case.
Most right-handers can throw with their left, and vice-versa. It comes at the expense of the delivery. At some point, though, you’ve got to throw with your best hand. If Hollywood writers can’t break out of their mold, and do it well, then I think I would rather they throw their fastball and make it as good a pitch as possible. Until or unless there is some sort of corrective, either by conservative entertainers stepping up or a flash of inspiration by bored liberal or apolitical writers, let Hollywood Be Hollywood and hope they’re pitching fast on the edge dof the strike zone.