A common reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency has been a sense that reality has outstripped even the most feverish fiction. The only thing to do when the world has come to feel like the implausible output of an ambitious but not particularly talented television writer is to cover it that way. Welcome to our recaps of “The Trump Show.”
At this point in the series’ run, I feel like I don’t need to note that that this week, “The Trump Show” ground through plot points at an exhausting rate. This is the mode the showrunners are committed to, and we’re basically strapped in for the ride. “The Trump Show” has no sense for why slowing down once in a while — whether to do an episode focused on one member of this huge cast of characters or simply to adopt a different tone that would give readers a break — might be to its benefit. And to be fair, the events the series set in motion don’t necessarily allow for that: Any pause would just leave the audience wondering about what’s happening in the Robert Mueller storyline or speculating about what Trump himself is doing whenever he’s off-screen*.
That said, I want to step out of the whirlwind myself and take some time this week to discuss how “The Trump Show” fits uncomfortably into the anti-hero genre in which it’s positioned itself.
“The Trump Show” is not the first series to try to fit into the model pioneered so successfully by creator David Chase and star James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos.” And despite signs of stagnation in the genre, and the rise of fresher templates for prestige television, it won’t be the last. On the surface, the character of Trump is an excellent fit for it. Like Tony Soprano, he bears the psychological freight of having grown up in the family he was born into, and like Tony, Trump is obviously torn between the things he values about his true business, and the mainstream adulation he craves.
But unlike the most compelling anti-heroes who came before him, Trump’s psychological transparency often saps the drama from his storyline. Compare the Cabinet scene in this week’s episode, when his staff went around the table trying to outdo each other in heaping praise on Trump. The sequence has the air of jaw-dropping implausibility that has become one of the defining stylistic moves of “The Trump Show.” But once you got past that, and the amusement of parsing the statements to see who’s winning the race to be most obsequious, the scene had little tension beyond a week-to-week who’s-up-who’s-down sort of thing.
Trump’s drive to dominate his underlings has little of the nuance that characterized, say, meth-cooking high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) relationship with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in “Breaking Bad.” In that series, Walt was initially disgusted by Jesse, then formed a fraught partnership with the younger man that he would do almost anything to maintain, then finally rescued Jesse in a suicidal and only partially redemptive grand gesture at the series’ conclusion.
Trump’s relationship with his underlings has none of that pathos nor back-and-forth. They’re mere employees, filling jobs that Trump barely seems to understand and certainly doesn’t care about. There’s something grand and haunted about that kind of contempt, but you can only do so many plots in which one character humiliates another before it gets old. And that’s not even to mention that so far, “The Trump Show” hasn’t had the courage to suggest that any of Trump’s employees have the sort of conflicted feelings toward Trump that Jesse developed for Walt. It’s a testament to the sophistication of “Breaking Bad” and the lack of equivalent courage on “The Trump Show” that the former is able to make a tormented, meth-cooking addict into a more morally complex character than a whole raft of Cabinet secretaries.
And of course, though the focus on Golden Age anti-hero shows tends to be on their male protagonists, the women are an essential part of the formula. For some reason, “The Trump Show” has decided to tell Ivanka and Melania Trump’s stories mostly through blind-sourced cover pieces in gossip magazines: Ivanka graced the June 19 issue of Us, while Melania appeared on the June 19 issue of Ok! From a plot purpose, I find this approach inexplicable, though production of “The Trump Show” has been dogged with persistent rumors about both actresses’ availability for and interest in the production, so it’s possible that this is simply a logistics work-around as the showrunners try to manage their sprawling and troubled cast. As long as this persists, “The Trump Show” is going to be missing an essential and clarifying element of domestic drama.
The Ivanka storyline this week seemed intended to position her as struggling with her father’s decision-making, though the story didn’t live up to the “Why I Disagree With My Dad” headline. But if the takeaway is going to be that “she’s learned to take … defeats in stride,” Ivanka’s storyline will never match the heights of Carmela Soprano’s (Edie Falco) struggles with whether to stay in her marriage, or Meadow Soprano’s (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) slow capitulation to her father’s business. Maybe there was a point at which we could imagine that Ivanka Trump would take a different path, but the inflection point for her is long in the rear-view mirror: She’s already made the equivalent of Meadow’s choice to become a mob lawyer.
And even by the standards of shows about middle-aged white male anti-heroes, Melania Trump’s role seems thankless. She doesn’t even have the draining parenting challenges that Corinne Mackey (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) faced on “The Shield,” or the frustrating but sexually charged dynamic that characterized the relationship between Jimmy and Elena McNulty (Dominic West and Callie Thorne, respectively, on “The Wire”). “The Trump Show” is giving her nothing to play. That may be a reflection of the series’ main character. But the best anti-hero dramas have always been aware that even if a man dismisses or marginalizes his wife, it would be mistake for the series to do the same.
*We should know that the answer to this is “watching cable television,” but to the series’ credit, Trump is such a stylistically volcanic character despite his penchant for routine that you can’t help but wonder. It’s a compelling juxtaposition.