We’re Approaching a Major Turning Point in Trump-Era Pop Culture

Black Panther, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Dunkirk. Photo: Marvel Studios, Hulu and Warner Bros.

For those of us who have spent the last six months tracking the evolution of a new category of entertainment — pop culture of the Trump era — the July 13 announcement of the Emmy nominations provided two headlines: Saturday Night Live received 22, by far the most in its 42-season history, and The Handmaid’s Tale got 13, finally putting Hulu on the awards map and confirming that the blighted theocracy of Gilead now stands tall among the many American dystopias (fictional division) currently available to consumers. These shows are, in their ways, two different answers to the entertainment world’s question of the moment, a.k.a. How Do We Deal With the Present Nightmare? SNL epitomizes intention: Even when the show fails to execute, it understands that its mission is to reprocess the week’s events into savage counterthrusts, meme-able and/or GIF-friendly social-media moments, and commentary via satire that “destroys,” for a weekend, all the things we know will rise again, resolutely un-destroyed, on Monday morning. For a show that has drifted in and out of relevance over the decades, Trump’s election was a reaffirming call to action, and it was no surprise that among its nominations were one for Alec Baldwin — featured so often as Trump that he had to be categorized as a series regular — and one for Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer (well, it was fun while it lasted).

To watch SNL in the Trump era is to judge it on the spot, in real time. The show is now virtually interactive, almost incomplete without our reactions to it. But the recognition for The Handmaid’s Tale epitomizes something different: our collective (and unreasonable) desire for art to have figured it all out in advance. Nobody who’s praising Handmaid is claiming that its vision of a world in which a male power structure turns women into second-class (or non) citizens was just a lucky shot in the dark, or that the way it bends some of the right’s ugliest rhetorical and political strategies into its narrative is mere happenstance. Instead, we give it a lot of credit for getting there first — for having seen the far future back in 1985, when Margaret Atwood’s novel was published, and the near future from April 2016, when the series was announced.

Never mind that Atwood was writing, 30-plus years ago, from feminist political concerns about which she was already impassioned and alarmed; right now, it feels more irresistible to venerate her for seeing around a corner than for looking through a window. The Handmaid’s Tale has been called prescient by many, and right now, in the place where real life and entertainment meet, there’s no higher praise. In search of believable oracular leadership that politicians and pundits have failed to provide, it’s tempting to turn to art — and subsequently, to borrow from that art, as women have done by wearing the show’s signature red robes and white bonnets at protests against infringement on abortion rights in several states. To watch The Handmaid’s Tale is to say “She saw it coming” — and to say she saw it coming is, above all, an expression of faith at a time when it feels in short supply.

This mix of intentional resonance and discovered resonance pervades culture right now. Sometimes it really does feel like sheer luck: The animated hit The Boss Baby, for instance, is about not just a malevolent toddler in a suit, but a malevolent toddler in a suit voiced by Baldwin, who in the months before the film’s spring release came to own that niche. Baldwin as baby as Trump isn’t even a joke the film has to tell; it’s just there. But in most cases, if art feels politically up-to-the-minute, it’s because its creators were thinking hard about real things a year or more ago. The summer’s indie breakout and critical smash The Big Sick has been acclaimed as feeling utterly on point about our health-care debate — but our health-care debate didn’t start last week. War for the Planet of the Apes has been cited for what one of its stars, Steve Zahn, called “so many parallels it’s unbelievable — immigrants, building walls, tolerance, fear.” But topicality is nothing new for this exceptional trilogy; three years ago, the second installment, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was pretty legibly an allegory about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tackles World War II in a way that, as Manohla Dargis noted, “closes the distance between yesterday’s fights [against fascism] and today’s” — which makes sense since it’s the work of a writer-director who has been infusing his work with contemporary politics since The Dark Knight a decade ago. And FX’s The Americans, five seasons in, has seen its big bet — that we’d all get interested in our adversarial relationship with Russia again — pay off in ways that nobody could have anticipated … but if series creator Joe Weisberg hadn’t thought this material was interesting and worth exploring, he never would have made the show in the first place. Most “prescient” work is done by artists who are looking at the world, not at a Ouija board.

This moment is coming into focus just as it’s about to end. The “wrong” guesses (a season of House of Cards that might well have played like a right-wing anti-Hillary nightmare if she’d been elected) and the speedy pivots toward the news (the most recent season of Homeland) or away from it (the most recent season of Scandal) have played out. As far as any of us know, all of the surprising “Who knew how perfect this would be for this moment?” shows have been unveiled; by early next year, that will also be true for feature films. (I’m marking the arrival of Marvel’s The Black Panther in February 2018 as the last studio movie green-lit pre-Trump about which we might end up saying “Good call!”)

With the advent of autumn (and the return of SNL) we’ll move into a period in which most of the resonance will be planned. Steven Spielberg’s The Papers, a historical drama about Washington Post journalists trying to cover an administration hostile to their very profession, was green-lit this year; Ryan Murphy has said that the coming season of American Horror Story, which starts in September, was inspired by the 2016 election. The writers of the CW’s Supergirl just announced at Comic-Con that one of the new season’s villains will be Morgan Edge, a media mogul in the comics who will be reimagined as, you guessed it, a ruthless real-estate developer for the show. An adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 is on Broadway this summer because, in the words of its co-writer and director Duncan Macmillan, “I think the feeling was, we have to do it now.” And Jason Bateman says viewers of the next season of Arrested Development can expect creator Mitch Hurwitz and his writers “to lean into a lot of that [Trump] stuff for sure,” with an explicit focus on the similarities many fans have already noted between the Bluths and the First Family.

My guess — speaking of questionable forecasting — is that our relationship to Trumpian pop-culture material will start to change in the next few months. Critics and audiences alike can be suspicious of art that looks like it wants to have an effect. We like to be unsettled but we also want our politics to be confirmed; some of us disdain “preaching to the choir” but like being in the choir; we want to discover resonance but prefer it to be well-enough concealed so that we can give ourselves credit for ferreting it out; we want artists to be clever but not to try to be clever. On some level, we’d have more fun coming upon Blade Runner 2049 or the new film version of Stephen King’s It or the next cycle of Stranger Things or Westworld and saying “Whoa, I didn’t think it would be so timely!” than we would seeing something that intends to be timely and leaves us nothing to say but “Yep.”

Which is almost certainly unfair. There’s nothing manipulative or cheesy about making art that wants to speak to the moment. Intentional resonance isn’t cheating; it’s the goal of topicality. And even The Handmaid’s Tale will fall into this category: When season two arrives next year, it will know we know what it is, and by definition, that will be a different experience. The series, and the next wave of Trump-era art, will probably be about the world we’re in, not about the world too few of us saw coming.

We’re Approaching a Turning Point in Trump-Era Pop Culture