As if to underscore how deeply politics has saturated the world of drama, this weekend’s 2016 Writers Guild Awards was well-populated by writers and actors from the fictional political worlds of shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Veep and The Good Wife, as well as the fictionalized worlds of real politics in efforts like HBO’s Show Me a Hero, which captures the politics of late ’80s/early ’90s racial tension and segregation in the city of Yonkers in New York’s Westchester county.
It’s hard to tell these days whether it is the fictional political world or the real one playing out in the news that is the most gripping. In certain ways, the two inform each other, and potentially viewers.
For Tony Goldwyn, his role as Scandal’s President Fitzgerald Grant is a channel for imagining the real-world realities of presidential politics. “I think it’s made me much more aware how incredibly difficult, not just the job of president, but the idea of running for president [is], how incredibly grueling,” he tells FishbowlDC. “It’s just made me much more conscious of the way messaging is so important.”
And if one of the roles of drama is to help viewers connect with things outside their own personal experience, Goldwyn, as an actor, is not immune to that effect. “I feel very empathetic to all the candidates, even the ones I don’t support,” he says.
“I’m fascinated by [politics], just fascinated by it. I always have been, but particularly now that I’m pretending to be doing it.”
It happened, too, for Margo Martindale in her turn as a campaign manager on The Good Wife who manages a fictional character running against the real 2016 candidates. The show recently did its take on the Iowa Caucus.
“It was happening, of course, a little ahead of time,” says Martindale, “So what it did for me was prepare me for all the debates and prepared me for Iowa. I knew so much more going in to this election than I have known in the past–how the caucuses work, what is the bellwether precinct. There’s been so much to know about elections that was behind the door, so it was very beneficial to me.”
And that might just extend to audiences. “I think that maybe seeing the Iowa episode and the caucus on the floor and how the people are swayed and pulled, I think it could actually help you see it through different eyes when you watch it and possibly when you go to vote,” she says.
But while fiction can function as an entry into life’s more inscrutable corners, bleed into the borders of what exists as the creation of the mind and what exists as the creation of atoms, there is a limit. Sometimes that limit is a self-imposed rule from its creators.
“I started in comedy and on SNL we did a lot of satire–political satire–and we never felt it was the job of the show to have a political point of view,” says Sen. Al Franken, there to receive the Evelyn F. Burkey Award, which recognizes those “bringing honor and dignity to writers.”
Franken, who was a writer on the show between 1975 and 1980, and again from 1985 to 1995, still agrees with the idea of keeping SNL politically neutral (or equal-opportunity satirical), but he found himself searching for other avenues in which he could be for a specific side. “I did step out and do my own thing and did express my political views,” he says.
Eventually that exploration, from his book writing to his radio show on Air America, evolved into his current gig. “I left the show. I was able to do that in my books and then the radio show, and it all got more and more serious and substantive, so finally I ran for office and now I’m in the Senate.”
As a senator, Franken has led not with his comedic id, but a policy-oriented, Minnesota-focused approach, in sharp contrast to another entertainer, currently running for the GOP nomination. “The longer I’ve been there, the more people understand that I’m a serious legislator, and so I’m given a little bit more license and freedom to be myself,” he says.
And for David Simon, so adept at reinterpreting news and history into serialized television, one of his limits revolves around timing.
“It’s one thing to use drama to reflect on something years later, but to pull drama that was now five, six years old…” He is talking about the use of his Baltimore-based HBO series, The Wire, as a way to understand what happened in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, who sustained fatal injuries in the back of a police van.
“You guys are attending to the case of Freddie Gray. Do not be pulling a fictional show and put it in front of what we need to be talking about now, in front of what needed to be in the news.”
“There’s a time to apply all that stuff. We can be reflective about it, but not now. The journalist in me was saying, let the facts prevail. If I was alive in 1861 or 1860 and somebody wanted to tell me that we have all the journalism, all the reporting we need on slavery because there’s this book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it’s been out for a few years, I’d be like, no, I actually want to hear what they’re saying now in the South. Let’s actually attend to what’s happening to actual human beings. If I read one more headline that said, The Wire predicted this, give me a f**ing break with it.”