Empowered women, guns & other social issues on TV dramas foster intelligent debate

Social issues providing storylines for TV dramas are nothing new.

More than 50 years ago, Star Trek tackled society’s problems by addressing them through its futuristic lens–and thanks to Gene Roddenberry’s bright vision, those shows hold up as well as George Orwell’s dark 1984.

“Star Trek Discovery” starring Sonequa Martin-Green airs on CBS All Access.

The producers/showrunners, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest Star Trek production, joined a panel of top executive producers to discuss how political and social issues are presented on their shows. The thought provoking interview session was held during the CBS portion of the 2018 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California.

Many compelling points were made by Berg and Harberts, plus acclaimed drama producers Robert and Michelle King from The Good Fight, Barbara Hall from Madam Secretary, and Shawn Ryan from S.W.A.T. Also, comedy producer Jermaine Fowler from the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts joined in about his way of speaking his truth to audiences with humor.

It was a gathering of the creative forces behind five shows from the CBS and CBS All Access programming schedules. Both on broadcast and the streaming service, the shows are provocative, timely, smart, entertaining and tackle a lot of big issues.

Star Trek Discovery, photo courtesy CBS All Access

Star Trek, one of the most influential global television franchises for 50 years, has Star Trek: Discovery airing on CBS All Access. The series stars Sonequa Martin-Green (of The Walking Dead) as First Officer Michael Burnham. The Star Trek: Discovery team noted that putting the spotlight on important issues in the Star Trek universe is in its DNA.

Showrunner Berg said, “You may be wondering why a show that takes place in the future, in the 23rd century, is here as part of a panel talking about current political and social issues on television, but like all good sci-fi, our show holds a mirror up to what’s going on currently in society and in politics, and that’s where we get much of our story material from.”

Co-showrunner Aaron Harberts added, “Over the 51-year history of the franchise, starting with Gene Roddenberry, the show has tackled many social issues, from having a Russian on the bridge during the Cold War, to having the first interracial kiss on television. Discovery is continuing with that legacy with a diverse cast that not only includes the first African American woman (Sonequa Martin-Green) to lead the show, but also the first gay couple on Star Trek. In our way, through a futuristic lens, it’s very important for us to foster debate and discussion and to shine a light on things that are happening in our world.”

Shawn Ryan, co-developer on S.W.A.T. with Aaron Thomas, explained, “We set out to tell stories in the context of an action show, a fun show, but something that could also resonate on more important levels.” Guns, immigration, police racism, have been examined.

“With Shemar Moore, who plays our lead, Hondo, we dealt with Black Lives Matter issues in our pilot. Subsequently we’ve been able to expand all across Los Angeles, telling stories that take place in the Filipino community, Koreatown, the Latino community and really focusing on how police interact with the community, and is there a better way to do that?” Ryan offered.

Barbara Hall said, “The mission statement for Madam Secretary from the beginning was to create a show where people could come to talk about politics in way that wasn’t so polarizing. It’s really a problem-solving show. It’s about showing you how the State Department works and how diplomacy works around the world. Because we go into every country and every culture, we get to deal with every issue around ethnicity, religion, gender identity and how those things affect everyone on a global scale.”

Married co-producers Michelle and Robert King created the CBS All Access series The Good Fight starring Christine Baranski as a follow up to The Good Wife. Michelle said, “Our shows have never shied away from political issues, and the timing of this series pretty much determined that we had to go all in on that. Because of the timing of the release of our show, we were able to be the first ones to actually address the Trump election.”

Putting a humorous spin on the issues is Jermaine Fowler, the Executive Producer and star of the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts. Fowler said, “The show means a lot to me because I get to express myself politically. A lot of topics we’ve tackled have happened to me in my personal life (as a Black man)— police brutality, microaggression, affirmative action. And what makes Superior Donuts stand out is the authenticity with the comedy opening up a world of information and honesty for the viewers.”

Margie Barron has written for a wide variety of outlets including Gannett newspapers, Nickelodeon, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine, Fresh!, Senior Life, Production Update, airline magazines, etc. Margie is also proud to have been half of the husband & wife writing team Frank & Margie Barron, who had written together for various entertainment and travel publications for more than 38 years.