On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, panelist Salman Rushdie reflected on the direction of his writing in the times we now find ourselves living:
“Because you have so much fiction, so much fantasy, so much deaf, distortion of truth being propagated every day, that I think, you know, maybe not magical realism. Maybe it becomes like the writer’s job, paradoxically the fiction writer’s job, to try and re-establish a sense of the truth.”
Fiction helps us make sense of the world, and the reach and impact of television is unparalleled in the world of art. The craft of turning an idea into a story begins with the writer. Television has always probed controversial topics, but over the years the added voices continued to experience the world in similar ways. The saturation of these themes compounded the issue, but slowly things have been changing. As more diverse voices join writers' rooms across the industry, they bring with them a wave of experience to their storytelling, finding their own truths in fiction.
Television is a treasure trove of writers exploring complicated and nuanced topics with varying degrees of success. With the sheer number of series out right now, it can be difficult to find the ones that have something powerful to say, and then execute it properly. For instance, House of Cards and Veep are great examples of series satirizing the same political system, but approaching it in two different — yet equally effective — ways.
Alternatively, Netflix’s original series 13 Reasons Why is incredibly problematic in its conversation around suicide by not grasping the importance of the story it is telling. The show to look for is one that is not afraid to have a difficult conversation about a host of things most people would rather ignore: police brutality, rape culture, mental health, bodily autonomy, politics and everything in between.
Ken: “Why don’t more of them swim?”
[Issa to her co-worker Ken at the We Got Y’all beach day for the kids.]
Comedy seems apt for dealing with the conversations surrounding diversity issues in our society. The technique for bringing these stories to television varies wildly from tackling topics head-on to parodying the issue itself. For four seasons on ABC, Black-ish has told consistently realistic and hilarious stories about the Johnson family and what it feels like to live in America as a black family, touching on everything from police brutality and Black Lives Matter to talking about racism with a young child.
Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn’t often focus on controversial issues, but the most recent season featured an episode wherein Police Sergeant Terry (Terry Crews) is the victim of police harassment and discriminated in front of his own house. The incident pushes Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) to give Terry some background on his experience with racism as he rose within the ranks of the NYPD, resulting in one of the series' most profound and serious episodes.
Donald Glover made history at this year's Emmys, winning Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for the parody heavy episode "B.A.N." of his series Atlanta. Glover's series created a platform to tell stories about people we haven’t seen on TV before, like his own character — aspiring music producer Earnest “Earn” Marks — for which he also won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.
Issa Rae’s Insecure just finished its hilarious second season and its importance to the conversation cannot be overlooked. It introduced audiences to the lives of young, complex African-Americans who are just trying to navigate dating and friendship in their twenties.
Aziz Ansari’s wildly popular, incredibly written Netflix series Master of None also made Emmy history this year when writer Lena Waithe won Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the groundbreaking episode, “Thanksgiving.” By not censoring herself, Waithe's brave retelling of her own personal journey about coming out as a lesbian was ultimately rewarded for its brilliance. Telling these diverse stories and giving them visibility expose people to new ways of thinking and interacting. We must begin a dialogue between people so we can finally have the uncomfortable conversations we have been avoiding for so long in this country.
Suggested Episodes: Master of None, “Thanksgiving”; Atlanta, “B.A.N.”; Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “Moo Moo”
Other Series to Check Out: The Night Of, Queen Sugar, Sense8
Hannah Horvath: “I am so sick of gray areas.”
While it's a difficult subject for most people to discuss — especially victims — the stigma around sexual assault will diminish the more we talk about its pervasiveness. Countless think pieces have been written about the excess of rape on television and its common use as a plot device, which often compounds the problem. Rarely do audiences get to see a realistic portrayal of sexual assault and the ripple effects it has on a person's psyche and interactions with their loved ones.
That’s not to say that writers haven't been aware of the issue, but the more recent influx of diverse voices are tackling the issue in a much more nuanced way. Dealing with the effects of sexual assault as a superhero, a series like Jessica Jones is uniquely positioned to explore the allegorical effects of sexual abuse. Despite her inhuman physical strength, Jessica is not immune from suffering after the deep psychological abuse sustained at the hands of Kilgrave.
Comedian Tig Notaro's semi-autobiographical comedy One Mississippi also focuses on sexual assault for a large part of the second season. It begins with a frank discussion on air between Tig and her co-host Kate regarding their prior experiences with harassment. Later, a male coworker corners Kate in his office as he masturbates behind his desk, then immediately denies it when confronted by a furious Tig. Not her story to tell, Tig channels her anger and uses her platform to shed light about her personal journey to recovery after enduring prolonged child abuse at the hands of her step-grandfather. Hearing the program ultimately opens up wounds for her brother Remy — who knew about the abuse but was just a kid himself — and her stepfather Bill, who never knew at all. In a touching pair of scenes, Tig tells Remy it wasn't his fault — he was abused too, just differently, and Bill opens up to Tig in a way he hadn’t ever before.
Girls has always riffed on sexual politics, but in a recent bottle episode, creator Lena Dunham’s character Hannah had a frank discussion with a writer she admired — played by the always mesmerizing Matthew Rhys — regarding sexual assault allegations swirling around him on Tumblr. After inviting her personally to his apartment, they talk alternatively about the accusations and their myriad similarities in taste. He continues to excuse his own behavior as acceptable and seems to have won Hannah, hook, line and sinker. It culminates in him crossing yet another line and the look on her face say everything we need to know about the allegations against him. Perspectives like these shed light on the oft-unmentioned perspectives on this kind of trauma.
Suggested Episodes: Girls, “American Bitch”; One Mississippi, “I’m Alive”; Jessica Jones, “AKA WWJD?”
Other Series to Check Out: Orphan Black, Outlander, Orange is the New Black
Maria Bamford: "That was the old me trying not to be the real me."
Television has made strides in recent years with the depiction of mental illness and the stigma surrounding mental health. Diseases like depression and PTSD have received more visibility, and anxiety has become about as American as apple pie. Whether it’s through comedy or fantasy, personal experiences with mental health issues bring a perspective largely absent from the national conversation. While dramas have a unique opportunity when it comes to portraying the real effects of mental illness, comedy is always great for normalizing the absurd.
Recently on popular NBC series This is Us, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) experiences a debilitating anxiety attack that is all too real for those of the population who experience them regularly. Despite its comedic bent, FXX’s You’re the Worst still portrays depression better than any series around. Season 3's episodic character study of Edgar's all-consuming experience with PTSD is stellar, but incredibly heartbreaking. Jessica Jones similarly follows a streak of self-destructive, isolating behavior — including devolving into alcoholism — after developing PTSD in the wake of months of constant manipulation and unyielding sexual assault.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like similarly pre-panned CW series Jane the Virgin, was initially rejected by audiences put off by the title (yours truly included). But once it premiered, they got to witness and come to admire the deft way it has tackled main character Rebecca Bunch's (Rachel Bloom) struggle with anxiety and depression hilariously through the power of song. Similarly, Maria Bamford’s incredibly unique series Lady Dynamite pokes fun at the harsh (and sometimes hilarious) truths of her own experience with bipolar, which is as a part of her as her naturally high voice and penchant for bad decisions.
Suggested Episodes: Lady Dynamite “Loaf Coach“; This Is Us “Jack Pearson's Son”; You’re the Worst “Twenty-Two”
Other series to check out: BoJack Horseman, Elementary, Mom, Fleabag
Trying to understand humanity can be difficult if you are unable to see things from a different vantage point. It's more important now than ever that these different perspectives are represented across the television landscape so audiences are exposed to new ways of thinking, people and experiences unfamiliar to them. Entertainment can force us out of our comfort zone and begin the important conversations we need to have in our society. In this age of “alternative facts,” now is the time we must speak truth to power, especially through our art.
Which modern TV shows do you think best tackle the hot-button issues of today?