Clearly, “The Young Pope” on HBO is an allegory of the Trump era. The new Holy Father is Jude Law, a vain, bullying American who instantly uses his worldwide power to radically alter the rules of the Vatican and throw the bishops off their game. He says what he thinks, directly, loudly, whether people want to hear it or not.
Equally clearly, Netflix’s “The Crown” is a response to the Trump era, a reverse image of the current primitive tone of discourse, a portrait of elegant interactions built on mutual respect and protocol. Does Trump want to be a president who’s pampered like a monarch, as monarchs are shown in “The Crown,” even if said crown would further derange his hair?
And obviously the CW’s “Supergirl” is a metaphor of female empowerment after the Age of Hillary failed to dawn, at a time when young women could use positive role models. Our caped heroine isn’t going to be grabbed by anyone on any body part any time soon, no matter how powerful and rich he is. Oh, and she’s a news reporter who looks for the truth, so even when she’s not saving the world, she’s saving the world.
Plus, CBS’s “The Odd Couple” stands as a monument to one country divided into two opposite types. Hell, all sitcoms are Trump era icons, as they represent an escape for those for whom the world is too much with. Also, all of the reality shows represent America’s auditory loss when it comes to hearing facts, since “reality” on those shows has been manipulated into something less boring and more alternative. And by the way, the subtext of all programming on HGTV is: Shelter in place until the political chaos has passed through town.
Yes, I’m kidding, more or less.
In the past few months, since Nov. 9, almost every TV show seems to be begging for new relevance. As the broad contexts of our lives shift — from the deep principles of our democracy to the tone of our public conversation and international relations — it’s as if TV series, as well as movies, books, and music, are revealing new facets of meaning. “Billions” is about the struggle between a New York hedge-fund billionaire and a US Attorney, but it suddenly could be about President Trump and his financial dealings — his somewhat mysterious financial dealings. When the Showtime drama returns on Feb. 19, it will be deeply tempting to link it to the new boss who isn’t the same as the old boss. Likewise FX’s “The Americans,” which returns March 7 with its absorbing story rooted in the historic strains between Russia and the United States. How does this spy drama set in the Reagan ’80s mirror and contrast Trump’s new attitudes toward that country?
Arts critics enjoy little more than taking artifacts and tying them somehow to the moment. Sometimes the connection is obvious, other times it’s a reach — or more subtextual, as I’d probably put it in an article. It’s always worth looking at how and why a series is a product of its time, or, more rarely, in the case of a “Will & Grace,” a generator of change. As a critic, you do want to signal thumbs up or down to the reader, and you do want to analyze and open up the story and the characters, but most of all you want to link a show to the state of our culture. In the wake of 9/11, it wasn’t unusual for writers to find emotional fallout of the attacks in the paranoia, random groupings, and apocalyptic notions of shows such as “Lost.”
But the urge to see everything through the lens of this administration is more compelling than ever, it seems. Maybe I am a little out of control. I am finding comparisons to make all over the place — no, not in “The Odd Couple,” but definitely in some of the dystopian episodes of “Black Mirror,” in the primitive power plays on “Game of Thrones” and “Vikings,” and in the chauvinism and absurdist flourishes of “Veep.” And then some shows are openly asking to be viewed in light of Trump, notably ABC’s “Black-ish,” which recently ran a thoughtful episode about Dre’s reaction as a black man to the Trump victory. Norman Lear’s shows in the 1970s, led by “All in the Family,” similarly courted timeliness.
Perhaps it’s because there have been so many changes since Jan. 20, and those changes have been so fundamental. I find myself in search of foreshadowing, reflection, wisdom, and analysis in the shows we watch — in the same way readers are looking for insight in George Orwell’s “1984,” which has become a bestseller. It’s hard not to scrutinize our stories for significance, to hunt for applicability, now that everything looks so different.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.