It wasn’t technically that long ago, if you’re going by the popular metric of revolutions around the sun, that it was cool for TV and movies to be bleak. Dark, gritty, grimly realist, whatever you want to call it — it was in vogue for a minute there. But in 2017, in America, it’s getting harder to even remember the time before entertainment was so urgently tasked with providing either topical catharsis or a gentle, delightful escape. Before The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies became private forms of exposure therapy, before The Good Place and Terrace House and Carly Rae Jepsen became go-to, on-demand dopamine hits.
Remember when the thing that consumed people’s off-hours leisure time was the saga of whether a man of questionable morals who suddenly rose to frightening, destructive heights of power would manage to destroy everyone in his path … by the end of season five? I mean, I do, but these days, I don’t like to.
Back when the world itself wasn’t such a bleak place, it was possible to make the argument that artists’ and entertainers’ great challenge was to ask big, hypothetical questions about the world, about its best-case scenarios and its worst-case scenarios. What if Earth became uninhabitable? What if a foreign power manipulated a presidential election? Is there good art and bad art? Just how sophisticated should artificial intelligence be? At one point, these were all just fascinating hypotheticals, to be argued about in bars or pondered as you drifted off to sleep, or fleshed out onscreen at feature-film scale. But in 2017, a bunch of pop culture’s favorite worst-case-scenario thought experiments became terrifyingly real.
“What if someone wildly underqualified got elected president?”
Prior to 2016, writers loved imagining what America would be like under the rule of a novice leader. In 2017, the entire world got a front-row seat to it actually happening.
Works like 2006’s Man of the Year and Idiocracy, 2003’s Head of State, 1993’s Dave, 1972’s The Man, the 2016 TV series Designated Survivor, and the 1999 children’s book The Kid Who Became President have all tried to flesh out what the world would look like if a celebrity, an unlikely replacement candidate, a bizarrely lucky bystander, or a middle-schooler got elected to the presidency.
A handful of familiar political snafus plague many of speculative fiction’s commanders-in-chief: the flustered accidental revelation to the press, the botched attempt to pass for knowledgeable in a high-profile meeting (complete with incredulous White House staffers exchanging glances), the highly unorthodox debate or State of the Union, the slapstick mishap with the White House as a combination home and work facility. In some cases, the overwhelmed new president digs deep and finds something presidential within himself. In others, he realizes he’s in over his head and resigns, handing the presidency over to someone more adequately prepared.
Curiously, no outsider-as-leader-of-the-free-world fiction narrative has ever imagined the president’s own hubris becoming a threat to national security.
“Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?”
For decades, the question of whether you should — or even could — judge the work of an artist independently of their character remained largely in the realm of the theoretical. Occasionally, it’d become an uncomfortable real-life dilemma, when a guy with a shady reputation or an unforgotten past scandal made a good movie (see: Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, among others). Whether you should separate the art from the artist mostly remained up in the air; whether you could, however … well, all three of the aforementioned guys were nominated for Oscars for those films, and Polanski won.
But this fall, when the public bore witness to an avalanche of skeletons suddenly tumbling out of very high-profile closets, the answers to the now-urgent questions of “can you” and “should you” became something more like “no” and “hell no.” After accusations emerged against Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, and a host of others, these men were promptly renounced by many of their fans, condemned by their colleagues, and fired by their employers, that last of which stood to benefit most from their professional success.
Maybe it was the magnitude of an industry-wide exposé, which is harder to rationalize away than a single whispered scandal. Maybe it was the deluge of public testimonies from the victims of powerful men’s monstrous professional practices; that this time, they were clear, disturbing, and numerous. Will their art live on, carrying on a legacy separate from that of the artist? Signs point to no — for the moment, at least.
“What if the Nazis were still around in the present day?”
Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle opens on a curiosity shop selling 20th-century American artifacts in a San Francisco under Japanese rule. Its owner ruminates on his low social standing; he knows it’s because he’s what the Japanese and German ruling classes derogatively call a yank.
Pop culture loves a good “What if the United States lost WWII, and the Axis powers took over?” simulation. And thus, The Man in the High Castle and its ensuing TV adaptation, the movie Philadelphia Experiment II, and two of the later installments of the Wolfenstein video-game franchise (among others) are all riffs on the counterfactual that the Nazis have been continuously in power since the 1940s.
Works like these tend to depict an iron-fisted, broadly powerful Nazi regime, which is radically different from the smaller revival of Nazism we’ve seen in 2017; 2017’s Nazi movement remains, you know, only linked to the administration. (Another striking difference: The Wolfenstein vision of present-day Nazi rule includes a bizarrely large population of roving, angry Nazi dogs, which I’ll admit I have an inordinate amount of questions about.)
And yet, there are a few things these creators correctly anticipated. The Man in the High Castle TV adaptation boldly and unsettlingly depicted public Nazi salutes in the most symbolic of American places, like the White House and the Statue of Liberty. After the election of Donald Trump, modern white nationalists announced their (re-)emergence into mainstream American politics by holding a conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., where attendees likewise engaged in enthusiastic Nazi salutes. And in Amazon’s series, the organized opposition is nicknamed “the resistance.”
Premiering in 2015 and airing throughout 2016 and 2017, some elements of The Man in the High Castle adaptation that were intended to come across as wildly dystopian were so prescient they were problematic: Some found its marketing stunts, like swastikas on New York subway train cars and a fake “Resistance Radio” station, for instance, to be threatening.
“What if slavery had never been abolished?”
In July, the creators of Game of Thrones announced that they would soon be asking Americans to ponder a world in which black people were still sold as slaves with an alternate-history TV series. Four months later, CNN aired footage from an investigative report in Libya that depicted an active, brutal system of black people being sold as slaves.
To be clear, 2017 is by no means the first time in history that conversations about “what if slavery, but now” have carried on at the same time slavery has: 2004’s mockumentary Confederate States of America predicted an American slave trade facilitated by the internet; Ben H. Winters’ acclaimed 2016 novel Underground Airlines imagines an America where four states still have slaves, now called “persons bound to labor”; in real life, worldwide, the population of enslaved humans numbers in the tens of millions.
It’s worth noting, however, that in the 20th century, most alternate histories about the Civil War imagined that slavery would have ended even without the Emancipation Proclamation, though black Americans would remain disenfranchised and oppressed. Often, nowadays, these ring the most eerily true of all. In 1930, Winston Churchill published “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” an alternate history set in an alternate history, imagining what would have happened if, God forbid, the North had won the war:
“Let us only think what would have happened supposing the liberation of the slaves had been followed by some idiotic assertion of racial equality … We might have seen the sorry force of black legislators attempting to govern their former masters. Upon the rebound from this there must inevitably have been a strong reassertion of local white supremacy. By one device or another the franchises accorded to the negroes would have been taken from them.”
“What if the wrong winner got announced at the Academy Awards?”
And finally, a fun one. Ever since 1993, when Marisa Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny sparked rumors that presenter Jack Palance had announced her as the Academy Award winner by mistake, the seriously-though-but-what-if hypothetical has been unearthed, bandied about, and inevitably debunked just about every year: What would happen if a presenter announced the wrong winner at the Oscars? Some theorized that for the sake of politeness, maybe the Academy would just … go with it?
Others figured the situation would right itself sooner than later, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that tallies up Oscar votes, made it clear that was indeed the plan: Martha Ruiz, one half of PwC’s Oscar-night QA team, told The Huffington Post just days before the 2017 Oscars that she and her counterpart would be stationed on opposite sides of the stage, with the winners list memorized, fact-checking the presentations in real time and prepared to alert the nearest stage manager should anybody go rogue.
Of course, the aforementioned counterpart, Brian Cullinan, then launched himself into the Dramatic Irony Hall of Fame, telling the HuffPo, “We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly … Whether that entails stopping the show, us walking onstage, us signaling to the stage manager — that’s really a game-time decision, if something like that were to happen. Again, it’s so unlikely.” Four days later, the Academy had officially cut ties with Cullinan over his involvement in the announcement of the wrong Best Picture winner.