TV is there for a divided country

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"Billions," left, and "The Outsiders."

PASADENA, Calif. - If you think the cultural elites who make and run TV are out of touch with America, think again.

Individual actors, producers, and network executives may be as surprised as anyone by the outcome of the presidential election, but television as a medium has known for some time how divided this country is.

The fragmented audience that last year had a choice of a record 455 scripted shows has made it as hard to produce a viewer-uniting hit, scripted or unscripted, as it is to choose a leader that a majority of Americans can agree on.

On the plus side, there are now more points of view in the programming.

For two weeks during the Television Critics Association meetings that ended here on Wednesday, the question that came up again and again was this: How will Donald Trump's presidency change TV?

ABC's Black-ish has weighed in on the results. But, really, who can say what will happen next that TV will feel the need to respond to?

Already, though, conspiracy-minded fiction like ABC's Designated Survivor and Scandal - which returns on Thursday with its own election results - feels less escapist than it did before we were told of Russia's attempts to interfere with a real U.S. election.

Homeland, which hedged its bets many months ago by writing in a female president-elect (Elizabeth Marvel, House of Cards) who's at odds with the intelligence community, looks smarter than ever.

But a show doesn't have to be set in the world of politics to be political, or prescient.

Outsiders, which returns at 9 p.m. Tuesday on basic cable's WGN America, is a drama about the Farrells, a large extended family living off the grid atop a mountain in Kentucky whose way of life is threatened when a mining company acquires the land they've occupied for generations.

Below the mountain sits a town full of out-of-work coal miners and their families, who are as important to the story as the Farrells.

"The world that we've created, you have a population of basically sort of disenfranchised, unemployed, desperate, rural people who are angry and they need jobs and they need money and they're angry at a group of people that have even less than they do," Outsiders creator Peter Mattei told reporters.

"These two groups are kind of at war with each other, and at the top of it and kind of benefiting, ultimately, from this [are] . . . some corporate billionaires working with the state government. So I think that's a pretty decent metaphor for the whole country right now," he said.

This season, responding to some fatal encounters last season with the Farrells - led by a character played by Philadelphia's David Morse, who looked to be a goner in the season finale - the authorities' next idea will be to build a very long fence to contain them.

"We came up with that story point a month before there was ever any talk about a fence going up anywhere else," said executive producer Peter Tolan.

Maybe so, but a second-season story line about the crushing cost of illness, even for someone who manages to get access to health insurance, seems particularly timely, illustrating the hopelessness of people who may never see their situations reflected in an episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Health-care concerns could also explain one appeal of the Farrells' lifestyle. Their homegrown remedies may not be more effective than modern medicine, but at least the family doesn't have to fight with insurance companies for the right to try them.

Most people we see on television aren't struggling as much as those on Outsiders, but economic diversity does exist in shows such as ABC's The Middle and CBS's Mom, Showtime's Shameless, and Netflix's new One Day at a Time, where money's not an abstract concept.

The third season of ABC's anthology series American Crime, which premieres March 12, looks to be a deep dive into human trafficking, immigrant labor, and the economics of farming, set in North Carolina.

Creator John Ridley, who explored a racially charged murder in Modesto, Calif., in the show's first season and the consequences of a sexual assault in its second, set in Indianapolis, didn't need the November election to know there were stories to be told about places far from Hollywood. (Shots Fired, a forthcoming Fox drama about the aftermath of a fatal police-involved shooting, is also set in North Carolina.)

"Irrespective of who's in office, I've always wanted to tell stories that had a bit of urgency," Ridley said. "If people look at things through a slightly different lens, based on what's going on, that's not necessarily a bad thing."

There have always been "electric moments" in politics, he said. "But if all we're doing is addressing things that are happening in the moment . . . as opposed to addressing the larger infrastructure that seems to have been in place for decades and decades, then I think we're missing the bigger picture, and I think we're missing bigger opportunities."

On the other side of the economic divide, one opportunity television won't be missing in a Trump administration is to tell more stories about billionaires.

The tech billionaire who's trying to revolutionize medicine in CBS's Pure Genius will have a counterpart on Fox beginning Feb. 6, when APB premieres, with Justin Kirk playing a tech billionaire who privatizes a police precinct in Chicago after his best friend is murdered.

Showtime's Billions got there first.

Returning for a second season Feb. 19, it stars Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, a financial wizard whose disdain for regulation puts him in the crosshairs of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, who also happens to be a producer on Outsiders.

Even before a billionaire was elected president, Billions showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien say, they were interested in America's fascination with the ultra-moneyed.

"Why is it that someone on TV, on a reality show, that . . . the primary thing they've done is earn a lot of money, and they're charismatic, why do we forgive everything else, as a culture, and celebrate these people?" Koppelman said. "We were asking that question a year before the election, and we're asking the question in a more penetrating way in the second season."

Billions "is not directly about national politics. But what it is about is the kind of person who allows ambition, and the need to dominate, to drive a lot of their behavior. And so the resonances are there," he said, adding, "The show's still funny. We didn't get on a soapbox."

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