It was the pained refrain heard at coffee shops and bars throughout America in November 2016 after the unexpected results of the Presidential election: “at least art will be better under Trump.” The reason being that oppression, negativity, divisiveness, and instability is often a recipe that freethinkers can channel into progress in many creative mediums.
Although the entire portrait of Trump’s presidency has yet to be painted, we can already see that some incredibly vibrant and original art, often lumped under the “woke” banner, has already been created in response.
“Woke” is a term used so often in culture that it has taken on a sense of parody. But, it is useful. When we talk about being “woke,” we talk about actual awareness and analysis of the social, racial, and gender issues that are important to the lives of marginalized Americans.
Any TV show can work in a MAGA hat or a reference to the President Trump’s radioactive orange tan – those are simply sitcom-style jokes which have existed in one form or another since TV became a commonplace item in everyone’s home.
It takes a truly special television show to actually present and analyze relevant social issues – in direct response to Presidential leadership – while also telling a compelling story.
Many of these “woke” shows don’t even mention the President. But, all of them shine a dramatic light on the challenges of our specific moment, and offer the audience an opportunity to meditate on how the ills of our society could be improved.
Here are the shows that make us laugh, cry, and ponder a world where Donald Trump is the President of the United States.
In this second year of the Trump era, Donald Glover has cemented himself as one of the most significant artistic voices of dissent in American life. Only perhaps Kendrick Lamar has had a more distinct and resonant response to the ills of this particular moment. With both his work as Childish Gambino and as the executive producer of Atlanta, Glover has emerged as one of a few voices to truly define the counterculture in the Trump era.
Absurd times call for absurd stories. Glover and series supervising director, Hiro Murai, understand this perfectly, and they’ve created the pitch-perfect environment for their show. The stories of Atlanta have been been equal parts compellingly human, and dreamily detached from reality. With its mix of absurdity, irony, and painful reality, Atlanta evokes some of the best artistic tendencies of the equally disenchanted Nixon era. Just as Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut would bend reality to expose its sheer ridiculousness, so too does Glover.
The list of pressing modern issues addressed on Atlanta so far read like a list of the greatest ills of the Trump era. Police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic poverty have all emerged as major themes of the show. And yet, there is humor, hope, and the sheer beauty of creative expression that manage to shine through in every episode.
Atlanta might be the most important artistic reaction to the Trump era so far. It is certainly the most relevant show on television. The series stands besides Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project; as both scathing indictment of our political moment and a loving ode to the people most deeply impacted by American oppression.
The Handmaid’s Tale
When The Handmaid’s Tale debuted in April 2017, the consensus was that this show was was some kind of terrible prophecy, reflecting in the logical extreme the rapid changes that were happening under Trump – specifically as it related to the plight of women under his hardline approach to reproductive rights and his war with Planned Parenthood.
Margaret Atwood, the author of the source material, admits that the show would have had a different feeling had Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump, saying, “If, for instance, Hillary had won, people would have said, ‘Dodged a bullet! This isn’t going to happen.'”
While Trump’s presidency has been conservative, the theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale is closer to a nightmarish extension of a Mike Pence or Ted Cruz presidency. Gilead is essentially an evangelical theocracy – built upon a stance that buoyed Ronald Reagan to the presidency – with a little bit of New England puritanism thrown in.
It makes sense then that the red, hooded costume of the handmaid has become a ubiquitous presence at real-life protests of various abortion bans and restrictions being foisted on America by the more evangelical wing of the Republican party.
Elizabeth Moss’s incredibly pained, yet deeply resilient performance as Offred has become a powerful symbol of feminist struggle in the Trump era. Moss’s work, showrunner Bruce Miller’s scripts, and Margaret Atwood’s source material are so powerful, that it is very likely that the power of this story could outlive Trump. It is likely that as long as the terrible American tendency towards misogynistic fundamentalism persists, the image of Offred will remain sadly, deeply relevant.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
The Daily Show and the The Colbert Report were the political shows of the Bush era. Jon Stewart’s snarky father figure assured college students overwhelmed by the faith-based stupidity of George W. Bush’s presidency, while Stephen Colbert mocked the Fox News talking heads that their parents were numbing themselves with after work. While The Daily Show continues today, albeit in a different form, Last Week Tonight is the essential late night show of this political moment.
Trump’s presidency has been defined by a disregard for the truth. John Oliver’s show fights back against that with rigorous and thoughtful accuracy. Whether Oliver is tackling multi-level marketing schemes, crisis pregnancy centers, or corporate consolidation, he and his team offer the discipline of a show like Dateline or 60 Minutes, while still managing to entertain.
Even when Oliver isn’t explicitly touching on something related to the Trump administration, he is critiquing the structures that birthed Trump. The laws that corporate interests and obscure political realities make it difficult to keep up with all of the various scheming hucksters in our world. The pace of the news cycle under Trump makes staying informed even more difficult. Each week, Oliver offers his audience a small life raft, providing a sane and reasoned explanation of one of those issues that might have slipped through the cracks. As a whole, his analysis helps to exposes the harsh realities of our broken system.
American Crime Story
Ryan Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith had a tough act to follow with the second season of American Crime Story. Veteran biopic writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, had already delivered one of the best seasons of television of all time with their work on The People Vs. OJ Simpson which had been released during the run-up to the election, and when the realities of race and gender in America were a daily conversation.
While the second season of the show didn’t receive the same universal critical acclaim or ratings buzz that the show saw in season one, it was no less affecting as a cultural critique.
If season one, more or less, was about race and gender, season two, more or less, was about the LGBTQ experience and the different roads that Gianni Versace, Andrew Cunanan, Jeff Trail, and Lee Miglin were forced to take.
By telling all of these different stories, Murphy and Smith ask us to reflect on the gay experience in America, both in terms of how far we’ve come, and in terms of how far we still have to go.
Lena Waithe became a cultural force thanks to her performance as Denise on Master of None – as well as her work in the writer’s room which earned her an Emmy for season 2 highlight, “Thanksgiving.”
Waithe used her newfound cultural capital to do something completely different from Master of None. Reflecting on her time growing up in Chicago, Waithe delivered the sprawling, stunning drama, The Chi.
What The Chi achieves is revolutionary, yet beautiful in its simplicity. Rather than telling the story of a murder from the point of view of the police, as something to be solved, the show tackles a crime from the perspective of the community it impacts. With each episode, we watch the incident ripple and reverberate through the city as the show examines the effects of the crime on an individual level.
Often in crime shows we get the sense that the detectives, and by extension the audience, love this shit. They have such a fascination with the morbid aspects of murder, you get the sense that this is where they want to be than prodding bodies at a crime scene. What is so refreshingly real about The Chi is that you very clearly get the sense that these characters would rather be doing anything else than reckoning with the dead body of one of their own.
In The Chi it is what is happening around the crime that is actually most important. Though this may seem like a simple decision, the humanity that comes from such a small decision can be revolutionary.
Dear White People
While the show is sometimes compared to contemporaries like Atlanta and Master of None – shows often described as “surreal” and “emotional” – Dear White People is self-consciously rhetorical and intellectual. Episodes often play out as debates regarding a particular issue, owing a debt to Greek theater, whereas most modern shows model themselves after Shakespeare.
This approach sometimes limits the dramatic weight of the show, but at the same time, Dear White People is among the most challenging series on television. Episodes often begin with Samantha (Logan Browning), who hosts a radio show that shares the TV show’s name, outlining the issue of the week with an argument as a monologue. If this is Greek theater, she is our chorus. The episode then delves into the issue du jour, which often relates to race. However, Dear White People has broad and curious interests. One of this season’s strongest episodes is about abortion, and is brilliantly directed by feature film veteran, Kimberly Peirce.
Season 2 of Dear White People leans into itself even more than the first season – relying on references, debate, and hot button topics to create a cultural document that reflects our particular moment – while also acknowledging the artistic forces that have shaped both the show and the times. This season also introduces a conscious meditation on African-American history that enriches the series intellectually and visually.
Though the show was cancelled by Netflix after just one season, Seven Seconds managed to pack a punch, even if its punches sometimes landed unevenly.
The title of the show comes from the time it took a white police officer to run down a black teenager with his SUV. The show not only explored the event, but also the racial and cultural dynamic surrounding it. Thus, we see how black lives are often deemed unimportant in the law enforcement community, but also why a seemingly moral cop could make the decision to walk away out of fear that he would be lumped in with other bigoted police officers who had crossed the line out of malice.
A cast anchored by national treasure Regina King offered a 2018 version of the tried and true procedural formula helmed by crime drama veteran, Veena Sud (creator of The Killing). While The Chi attempts to subvert and reimagine earlier efforts in this genre, Seven Seconds wondered if the classic crime show can thrive in the 21st century. Even if the mix of old-fashioned twist and turn storytelling didn’t always vibe with the progressive subject matter, Seven Seconds was a worthy attempt.
Network: Comedy Central
Unless Donald Trump is impeached, Broad City will end before his presidency does. The fifth and final season of the show will air in 2019, and the series finale will mark the end of the one of the most comfortably feminist shows on television.
Launched during the Obama years, the show’s effortlessly charming humor became a strangely effective protest once Trump came on the scene. Of all the various cultural appearances she made, it was Hillary Clinton’s cameo on Broad City that resonated most with the millennials the candidate so desperately wanted to reach.
Even from its origins as a plucky indie web series (back when people were watching plucky indie web series), Broad City was smashing the Bechdel Test by offering the world a stoner comedy duo without testosterone or sexual tension.
If Sex and the City was the standard bearer for an evolved generation of women in the ’90s, Broad City will be remembered in the same way when TV historians look back at the early 2010s. SATC understood sex as something that is normal and that women want. This was revolutionary television. Broad City went beyond SATC – and even Girls – by framing sex as one of the many complicated issues that millennials face, along with paying rent, holding down a job, and getting baked. It wasn’t necessarily that sex was always casual, but it is just one of a number of things on the to-do list. And almost always, friendship is higher on that list.
When Broad City pegs its way into the sunset, it will be sorely missed, not just an antidote to Trump, but as a joyous expression of the highs and lows of those first steps of adulthood.
They say living your best life is the best revenge. Maybe the best revenge against Trump is living life like Abbi and Ilana.
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas
A number of the political shows that have launched in recent years bear the imprint of The Daily Show very strongly. While Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are critically acclaimed, there is the sense that the current moment requires something more than more Boomers and Gen Xers working in the familiar form pioneered by Jon Stewart. Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas is a confident, if imperfect step, towards creating a truly millennial take of political comedy.
The show is still finding its way. Cenac’s monologues sometimes feel forced. Certain segments hit harder than others. But, when the show works, it really works. In particular, Cenac’s insistence on actually going to affected areas and speaking to organizers is effective when discussing issues like prison abolition and police brutality. Where many comedy shows love to interview right wing monsters and take them down a peg, Cenac wants to hear from the people trying to make a difference. And while he rarely drops his cooler than thou persona, he offers his subjects an empathetic ear.
Cenac’s enlightened slacker tone doesn’t always make him the perfect messenger, but he sometimes has the perfect message. Watching Problem Area work out its problem areas is fast becoming one of the great TV joys of 2018.
I Love You, America
If you haven’t seen I Love You, America yet, you’ll likely be struck by how personal it is. While a number of TV creators have been drawn towards trying to finding big picture solutions in the aftermath of Trump’s election, Sarah Silverman presents I Love You, America as her particular journey towards understanding.
Yes, Silverman does make treks to Trump country to goof around with southern conservatives, but this is just one piece of the late night pastiche she has created. In addition to her field pieces, she does traditional late night monologues, outrageous sketches, and in-depth interviews with progressive figures. While sometimes this all feels a little underbaked and overstuffed, just as often the show offers the perfect amount of anarchic self-discovery.
The net result isn’t exactly a razor sharp political vision or a crisp half hour of comedy. And it isn’t meant to be either of those things. The show is as fun, messy, and complicated as Sarah’s personal journey seems to be. While the show isn’t exactly long on solutions, it is a fun place to be for a half-hour each week.
When it was announced that Queer Eye For the Straight Guy was being rebooted, there were some concerns. While the show was well-received in its day, the original Queer Eye has a heavy dose of campy tokenism when viewed a decade later. As the American relationship with the LGBTQ community has evolved, the show would have to evolve as well. And it has.
Empathy is the name of the game in the rebooted Queer Eye. The new Fab Five equally prioritize the external and internal. And rather than simply focusing on “straight guys,” the help that the Fab Five provide isn’t merely presented in the binary of gay and straight. What the “Queer Eye” is looking at in this version is the way that men deny themselves happiness in service of some rigid vision of masculinity.
The most affecting episode is probably the first episode because the Georgia man they are helping is just as big hearted as his newfound mentors. There won’t be a dry eye in the house as you watch him realize what he has denied himself for almost six decades of life.
Is Queer Eye here to provide penetrating cultural analysis? No. But, the way that the slick and charming show can find deeply affecting moments and examine the strange realities of our cultural divide is worth its weight in TV gold.
Queer Eye is the feel good show of the year. But, more importantly, it makes you feel good for the right reasons. And, most importantly, watching it might leave you thinking about ways that you could be letting yourself feel better.
Gentrification is usually only discussed on television in the context of white guilt. The communities being displaced rarely get a chance to be heard from, outside of a token appearance or an embittered monologue.
Set in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles – and starring an all Latinx cast – Vida tackles the story that we’ve seen in a number of millennial dramas from a new perspective.
Following the death of their mother, two sisters, Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada), have to figure out what to do next. One of them is a free-spirited local and the other is the uptight businesswoman who left home: they both get along and don’t get along in that way only sisters can. They are left to deal with the bar their mother owned and her “roommate” (Karen Ser Anzoategui) who is really more of her widow.
The show has the soapy veneer and steamy moments you would expect of a teen drama, but it is all in a service of a story that isn’t often heard and people who aren’t often heard from. After years of primetime soaps starring beautiful white people in beautiful downtown apartments, seeing this familiar genre from a fresh point of view feels essential.
Shows like Vida remind us that representation isn’t as simple as color-blind casting in superhero movies. The diversity shouldn’t just be in the cast, but in the stories that cast gets to tell.
For more news about diversity in Hollywood, read about the plans for a Muslim superhero at Marvel.