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Hollywood Grapples With TV In The Age Of Trump

<em>Empire</em> and <em>Star</em> creator Lee Daniels at this year's Television Critics Association winter press tour. He says brilliant art may come from Donald Trump's victory.
Jason LaVeris
Empire and Star creator Lee Daniels at this year's Television Critics Association winter press tour. He says brilliant art may come from Donald Trump's victory.

Lee Daniels is known as a fiercely creative producer with a taste for controversy. He regularly tackles gay issues, race and class in the hit TV drama he co-created for Fox, Empire, and his new series for the network, Star.

But when I caught up to him after a press conference and asked how he felt about the election of Donald Trump, Daniels got unexpectedly emotional.

"I think that some of the great art will come from this time right now," he said, shedding a tear as he recalled his shock at Trump's victory, which he believes was fueled by anger in Middle America.

I think that some of the great art will come from this time right now

"[At first,] I couldn't write. It really affected my everything," he added. "And then the next morning, I wrote the most brilliant scenes that I've ever written before in my life."

After his emotions subsided, Daniels says, he was energized. But it took a moment to get there.

And he's not alone.

As Donald Trump's inauguration approaches, Hollywood faces the question of how this polarizing president might affect its work.

I spent time over the past two weeks in Los Angeles during the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, posing that question to an assortment of actors, writers, producers and TV executives.

Last week, ABC's comedy Black-ish aired an excellent episode showing the characters struggling with the implications of Trump's victory. But several of the people I spoke to in Los Angeles said they were still trying to understand what Trump's victory says about the mood of the country and their audience.

Some were concerned about Trump's bruising rhetoric on Mexican immigrants, women and Muslims. They wondered if they should follow the example set by Meryl Streep, who delivered a speech critical of the president-elect at the Golden Globes.

Others considered steering clear of politics, wary of involving their shows in partisan arguments.

It reminded me of the weeks immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A few TV shows back then tried to dramatize the nation's trauma quickly – The West Wing assembled an episode in a few weeks — but many found the event was too fresh to put into perspective.

In November, producers of the series The Good Fight – a spin off of the CBS drama The Good Wife – had to swiftly rewrite a scene in their first episode which showed Hillary Clinton winning the election.

Christine Baranski spoke during a press conference, about playing attorney Diane Lockhart — who starts over after losing all her savings.

"The interesting thing is, you have a lead character who is in moral, practical free fall — in a similar way to what the country is feeling right now," Baranski said. "How do you take the next step up when there's no foundation? Where are we? Where are we morally?"

Some TV shows written and filmed before the election may come across differently afterwards. Fox's new drama APB centers on a tech billionaire who takes control of the police department in a crime-filled district of Chicago, helping them with new equipment and technology.

But a series that may have seemed like a nod to the altruism of people like Bill Gates before the election might now seem like an endorsement of handing over government power to a rule-breaking billionaire.

APB executive producer Matt Nix said during a press conference that he and the show's other producers talked after the election about what kind of show they wanted to make.

"If you're on this side of this issue and you believe that what America needs is a businessman taking things over and telling everybody what's what — great," Nix said. "We've got a vision where we think this could be done responsibly."

Producers on one series that features Washington D.C., ABC's Scandal, said they were unaffected by real-life politics. Their season returns next week with the results of an election where either a woman or a Latino with a gay running mate will win the presidency.

Creator Shonda Rhimes regularly presents a world where such diversity is a fact of life; viewers get wrapped up in the characters before they even realize how groundbreaking the situation is.

Which might be just the blueprint for navigating politically charged stories in a polarized country.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.