2016 was such a bad year that its terribleness became a meme unto itself. Mutating first on internet forums, the sentiment trickled into the real world through newspapers, magazines, mixtapes, merch — and from my personal experience at a fratty New Year’s Eve party I accidentally attended, a multi-thousand dollar light-up display reading “Fuck 2016.” So it’s not immediately clear why anyone thinks there’s a sizable audience clamoring to relive it.
Nevertheless, the race to adapt the 2016 election for TV is, apparently, on. FX’s golden boy auteur Ryan Murphy announced Wednesday night that the next season of his anthology series American Horror Story will engage with the election, a strange departure for a show that has usually focused on either the far past or the weird niche cultures of the present. (For what it’s worth, Murphy is known for faking AHS viewers out, and two different FX spokespeople refused to confirm if he was serious. John Solberg, FX’s VP of communications, would say only “that is what Ryan said on the show last night and we have no additional comment.”)
If Murphy is being sincere, this decision must have been made in very short order following the election, as the season premiere is currently set for September and Murphy hinted at a completely different concept back in October. This still-hypothetical show will go up against — in the search for popular acclaim, at least — a 2016 election miniseries from Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. Both projects will also be competing for attention with House of Cards, which has fallen out of favor in the last two years, but could be poised to seize back relevance.
Will anyone watch these shows? Probably. The curiosity around them will be powerful, part of the same innate masochism that makes us open Twitter or turn on the news before we do anything else in the morning. Or try over (and over) to drag a sympathetic, rational phrase out of the mouths of our Trump-loving aunts. Or pull off scabs.
But that doesn’t exactly explain why high-powered creatives are so eager to make the shows in the first place. Is there even anywhere for fiction to go that we haven’t already gone to in our nightmares?
On one side of the entertainment landscape, the film industry has been picking up the pace on portraying recent political events for decades. There’s an obvious inflection point around the September 11th attacks, which were re-created in blockbusters twice before five years had passed. In the following years, director Peter Berg emerged as a connoisseur of national tragedy, making a $120 million spectacle out of the Deepwater Horizon spill, and recently retelling the story of the Boston Marathon bombing. Director Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, her 2008 portrayal of the then still-ongoing Iraq War, and her film Zero Dark Thirty had just a 19-month turnaround from the breaking news about Osama Bin Laden’s assassination to the adaptation’s major studio release.
But TV hasn’t followed suit on any of this until now. We expect period dramas about British royalty, the visual jackpot of 1970s counterculture, or the Revolutionary War from our prestige miniseries. We have seen some steps toward the more immediately political with procedural dramas about the way the information economy operates — Lifetime’s UnReal, or infamously, HBO’s The Newsroom — but just like “political dramas” such as The Good Wife or House of Cards, these shows use the veneer of current-ish events as a setting for more traditional drama. We’ve also seen a fascination with true crime sagas like The Jinx or Making a Murderer, but those are stories about people that aren’t already widely known, and the shows themselves seem to burn bright and fade out.
For individual creators, there are additional motivations. Ryan Murphy has an established reputation as a “provocateur,” the word we use for (mostly) men who push boundaries when it comes to sex, gore, and other taboos. Even if he’s not serious about using American Horror Story to comment on the election, it’s a very Ryan Murphy thing for him to say — always eager to do the most edgy thing. And if Murphy and collaborators gleaned anything from the success of American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, it was probably that recent history, drenched in issues that critics love engaging with, was an easy way to become the topic of conversation every single week. Most of the critical essays about ACS weren’t about whether the show was good (it was), they were using the show as a news peg for discussing the origins of reality TV culture or systemic racism in our justice system. Something as strident as an dramatization of an election that journalists still can’t coherently explain will provide even more fodder for that kind of discussion.
For the writer and producer of Zero Dark Thirty, there could be no more obvious way to transition into prestige television than by adapting the skills they’ve already honed, leveraging their position as the only unanimously respected recent political dramatists in film. And Boal also seems to think of it as an opportunity to do what journalism in 2016 couldn’t. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a group of investigative reporters will be working on the show to provide material for Boal to work from, further solidifying his own position has the go-to voice for gripping, real-world drama.
To be fair, the best fiction can help people deal with trauma by elucidating its causes and pointing at a way out. But it’s doubtful that’s the motivation here. Production companies and networks have undoubtedly seen this style of rapid-pace adaptation pay-off (Clint Eastwood’s Sully, for example, just brought in $240 million for Warner Brothers), which adds to the feeling that it’s an opportunity rather than a risk. Plus the field is wide open, and there’s obviously unparalleled cultural recognition of the subject matter.
In whichever cultural products we look at, it seems like there’s some kind of portent or sharp relevance, because the election of Donald Trump has shaken our basic assumptions about the country we live in and the people we know. We can’t stop saying “everything matters” (regarding the news, pop culture, the “insightful” things our toddlers say) as a way of saying “everything is related to this.” America is basically a gaping wound. So, the most unsettling difference between these projects and any based-on-a-true-story TV show we’ve seen before isn’t that they’re set to grapple with unresolved legal or political matters (we’ve seen that with The Jinx and The People vs. OJ), but that they’re, most explicitly in the case of Murphy’s project, mining something for horror and drama that is still unfolding as horror and drama in the daily reality of the people they hope will tune in to watch.
By the same logic, televised fiction now has the unique and disturbing opportunity to quite literally shape reality on the same level as cable news, something we gave it credit for in vaguer or less direct terms in years past. That's appealing for people who want their work to be not just popular, but important.
In her 1996 novel The Last Thing He Wanted, itself a fictional repackaging of US political villainy in 1980s Latin America, Joan Didion has a paranoid fixation with finding the edges of the grand structures of global politics and power. When it's done, she expresses a vague fear that narratives may themselves be a sedative, a choice people make to avoid seeing more than they can handle: “When I look back now on what happened I see mainly fragments, flashes, a momentary phantasmagoria in which everyone focused on some different aspect and nobody at all saw the whole.” The limits of storytelling are inherent in what storytelling is, which is why projects like these appear at once to be both an obvious move and a terrible idea.
TV creators will have the advantage of appealing to the basic human yearning to have our experiences simplified into digestible narratives. If you’ve spent the last three months spinning in circles, wishing there were some grown up anywhere who could coherently explain what was going on, it might feel nice to have some of what you’ve just witnessed repackaged for you into manageable one-hour pieces. For better or for worse, you’ll probably tune in.