For all its barely plausible twists and turns, Homeland has always been eerily prescient. In the past, the show that brought the War on Terror to primetime predicted an Iran nuclear deal and warned of Isis-inspired terror attacks in mainland Europe. And a glance at the plot summary for its latest outing would suggest it has retained those powers of prophecy.
The opening of the spy drama’s sixth series, broadcast by Channel 4 on Sunday, took place during the presidential transition, portraying an incoming Commander-in-Chief at odds with the CIA and sceptical of US military entanglements overseas. So far, so accurate. Yet those details were overshadowed by one failure of foresight: Homeland’s president-elect is a woman – which suggests its writers were just as wrong as the rest of us when it came to guessing the outcome of the 2016 election.
By the time this series of Homeland comes to an end, we’ll be three months into the Trump administration and the reality may have outstripped the fiction.
So what will the writers do next? Trump’s unexpected triumph poses questions for a nation raised on political drama. Will the plot of Scandal pale in comparison to the controversies emerging from the White House? Won’t Frank Underwood’s sly, Machiavellian tactics in House of Cards seem tame alongside President Trump’s public bullying and bluster?
Mark Wilding, who was head writer on Scandal for its first five seasons, says the show frequently found itself ahead of the curve – for instance, broadcasting a storyline about domestic NSA surveillance several months before the Edward Snowden affair.
Yet Scandal, too, was wrong-footed. “During the primaries, we created a character called Hollis Doyle, who we fashioned after Trump,” says Wilding. “Before Trump came out with it, Doyle’s motto was going to be ‘Make America Great Again’. But in the end, we couldn’t use it, because Trump did!”
It wouldn’t be unusual for a fictional presidency to run counter to reality. The West Wing, first broadcast in 1999 under the presidency of Bill Clinton, became a comforting liberal fantasy for Democrats depressed by the Bush years.
House of Cards imagined a scheming president tainted by scan dal in contrast to the squeaky clean Obama White House. But never has TV had to tangle with a real president so far outside the mainstream. And it’s unclear whether TV storytellers will choose to confront Trump and his worldview or pay greater attention to the opinions of Trump voters.
The most likely answer is “a bit of both”, says Wilding. “I think some writers will respond with satire. But we might also try to sell shows that reflect a little more of Middle America.”
Claire Danes in Homeland
It was recently announced, for example, that Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry would shoot a new ABC pilot starring country singer Reba McEntire as a small-town Kentucky sheriff, whose hillbilly point of view is challenged when an FBI agent of Middle Eastern descent arrives to help her solve a grisly crime.
But is the surest way to steer clear of controversy to avoid politics altogether? That may partly explain why so many of 2017’s biggest new US TV dramas are escapist: fantasies such as Twin Peaks and Amazon Prime’s American Gods, based on the Neil Gaiman novel; dark-hued superhero fodder such as The Punisher and Iron Fist, both from the Netflix/Marvel stable, and Legion, an X-Men spin-off from Fox.
Yet the best forum for tackling Trump-era politics may not be an explicitly political show at all. Appearing this month at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Press Tour in California, the creators of The Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight suggested their legal drama would tackle some of 2017’s most sensitive issues, including surveillance and police brutality.
Its protagonist, Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), is a feminist lawyer who treasures a framed photograph of herself with Hillary Clinton, and who winds up working at an African American-led firm after losing her savings in a financial scam.
Baranski told the TCAs that she had been shooting the show’s pilot on 8 November, as Trump’s election victory unfolded. “We were all in free fall,” she said, describing her character’s predicament as “similar to what the country is feeling right now, like how do you take the next step up when there’s no foundation? Where are we morally?”
Meanwhile, an episode of the sitcom Black-ish, broadcast days before the inauguration, has been praised for encapsulating the despair of liberal America – not to mention black America – as the Trump era approaches.
Family patriarch Dre struggles to manage his ad firm colleagues as they bicker about the election. His wife, Bow, donates to dozens of left-wing causes. And their children have to attend a “healing rally” at school after fellow pupils chant “Send her home!” at a Spanish teacher.
“I woke up feeling sick on 9 November,” says Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. “My whole family was experiencing so many different emotions, and I felt I had an opportunity to deal with them. Comedy gives you a spoonful of sugar to help swallow serious issues – I’ve had more positive response for that episode than anything else I’ve ever written.”
Then again, if the most topical series of 2017 is the one about strawberry blonde tyrants tearing down the establishment, laying waste to critics and forming shady alliances with bitter enemies, then look no further than the biggest show on television: Game of Thrones.