Even Murphy Brown has Trump fatigue. In last week’s episode, she threw down her remote and said, “I’m not watching anymore!” Ironic, of course, since millions of viewers stopped, or didn’t start, watching the new edition of CBS’ “Murphy Brown.” Conservatives figured, correctly, that she’d be trashing their leader weekly, and it seems liberals would rather watch Rachel Maddow.
Creative folks are learning they need to tread carefully doing anything dealing with politics these days, even if only tangentially winking at the chaos in the current White House. Despite possible resonance with the Stormy Daniels brouhaha, “The Front Runner,” a movie about the sex scandal that brought down Sen. Gary Hart, was a quick bust at the box office. Despite constant Nixon-Trump comparisons, Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Watergate” made little noise. “The Parisian Woman,” a Broadway show from the man who gave us Netflix’s “House of Cards,” made several poorly veiled references to the Trump administration. It was a dud.
Still, some persist. Among the films selected by Sundance for its festival next month is “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” The title of the documentary is a quote from the current president. Trump idolized the man profiled in the film, which Sundance describes as revealing “how a deeply troubled monster manipulator shaped our current American nightmare.” But will potential audiences want to pay for it, let alone distributors pick it up?
“It’s risky, especially since the real unfolding drama on cable is more compelling,” says Jonathan Alter, political reporter and co-director of an upcoming HBO documentary called “Breslin and Hamill.” That network suggested (“smartly,” Alter says) that although New York legendary journalists, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, covered Donald Trump as a businessman, any specific mention of his presidency would be unnecessarily explicit.
As The New Yorker’s humorist Andy Borowitz points out, it’s easier for journalists and even stand-ups to respond to daily events as opposed to creators of long-form entertainment. “Though every now and then,” Borowitz says, “there has been a joyous accident like ‘Wag the Dog,’ where something mirrors contemporary events with eerie perfection.”
Now, all multiplex eyes are on Adam McKay’s “Vice,” which follows the long and winding road of Dick Cheney. In the freewheeling style of writer-director’s “The Big Short,” the $60 million film features Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Steve Carell. The performers are popular with both boomers and millennials, but will the former be reluctant to relive unpleasant times, and the latter interested in a man who largely called the shots behind a president seen as intellectually limited?
Cheney, in fact, also features in another upcoming Sundance selection called “The Report,” starring Annette Bening as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The film deals with her investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program during the second Bush administration. (Still awake?)
Eyes will also be on a Broadway show coming in the Spring called “Hillary and Clinton.” John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf may be stellar as the former first couple, but will they be enough to overcome not only Trump, but Clinton, fatigue?
Also Broadway-bound is “Dave,” a musical based on the 1993 film about an “imposter” in the White House. Producer Allison Thomas, who oversaw a successful trial run in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, said she’s aware of the potential challenges in presenting politically themed material. “We do not want to do the ‘SNL’ version,” she says. “The movie was written about Reagan, filmed during Bush, released under Clinton. The lines that got the most laughter and applause in Washington were all from the movie.”
Bryan Cranston is single-handedly turning the theatrical version of “Network” — based on the 1976 film — into Broadway’s toughest ticket to get. But the truth is, while the original film now seems remarkably prescient (TV show begets a man who taps into public anger), the play has lost much of its satirical bite and plays more like a preachy parable about the dangers of television.
Dangerous or not, it is television that has arguably been best able to navigate merging the Trump era with political history. A&E’s recent documentary “The Clinton Affair” was well received, largely because we all wanted to hear Monica Lewinsky’s side of the story. The Kiefer Sutherland series “Designated Survivor” has been picked up by Netflix, and its upcoming Season 3 will deal with that TV president’s election campaign, fake news and all. What those shows, wisely, do not do is pretend there is a buffoon currently occupying the White House.
Perhaps the safest way to dramatically show what is — or is not — happening in today’s White House is through unfiltered written history. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” she speaks about the empathy of past presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, who once blamed “a very large part of the rancor of political and social strife” on the fact that different subsets of the population “are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the others’ passions, prejudices and point of view.”
Not a word about you-know-who, but we get it.