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Why it’s hard to trust an Obama-produced show to critique the government

‘The G Word With Adam Conover’ presents a former president’s optimistic take on the potential of government amid dwindling faith by the populace

Comedian Adam Conover and former president Barack Obama appear in “The G Word With Adam Conover.” (Chuck Kennedy/Netflix)
5 min

Comedian Adam Conover’s new Netflix show opens with the assumption that a good chunk of Americans, while opinionated about the federal government, don’t actually know much about how it operates. But he isn’t interested in depicting the “how” of it all, he says. “I want to know if it works, and for whom.”

In six half-hour episodes released Thursday, “The G Word With Adam Conover” examines and critiques how the U.S. government handles certain matters, from food production to weather disasters to military defense weapons. Conover’s approach requires pointing out flaws in the system, which he sometimes does through comedic sketches. The show presents as “Schoolhouse Rock!” with a cause — to advocate for solutions.

Given this agenda, it is notable “The G Word” comes from Higher Ground Productions, a company founded by former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. Barack Obama makes his presence known, appearing in the first episode and the last, which features a conversation between him and Conover about the feasibility of real change. The Obamas lend “The G Word” a degree of legitimacy in Netflix’s vast sea of offerings, but they might also give viewers pause: Why should we trust a show produced by a former president to offer an objective critique of the government?

In fairness, there are others involved. The show is based on “The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy” by Michael Lewis (“The Big Short,” “Moneyball”), and Conover seems to wield a decent amount of creative control. He doesn’t always let Obama off the hook, particularly when Obama suggests Americans need to be more patient because the government “is a human institution, like every other one, which means there are going to be screw-ups. … For you to change direction on anything means it’s going to take time.”

But, Conover asks, what if a significant number of Americans have been demanding change for a while now? What about matters of criminal justice? What about police violence?

“Of course you’re frustrated by it, and you should be,” Obama replies. “The reason it gets better is because people are impatient. The only thing we can’t do is lapse into cynicism and say, ‘Well, because this hasn’t changed at the pace that it should, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Because each time we vote and elect people who are more responsive, there’s a window of opportunity for us to make some changes. Typically it’s not going to be 100 percent of what we want, but if we make things 10 percent better—”

“Yeah, but 10 percent for climate change isn’t enough,” Conover says, cutting him off. “When you ran in ’08, you were the change guy. You didn’t run on, ‘Hey if we make things 10 percent better,’ you know?”

When the Obamas launched Higher Ground’s partnership with Netflix, the former president said that they hoped to “promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world.” The Obamas figure into some projects produced by their company, such as the children’s show “Waffles and Mochi” and the “Our Great National Parks” docuseries, and remain rather hands-off with others, such as the Oscar-winning 2019 documentary “American Factory.”

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Similar to “American Factory” — which explores the reopening of a former General Motors factory in Ohio under a Chinese company making automotive glass — “The G Word” advocates for the rights and fair treatment of everyday people. The final episode is titled “Change,” which Obama — in an effort to pacify Conover, a stand-in for frustrated Americans — acknowledges is difficult to accomplish “by design.”

“We don’t want a situation where an all-powerful, all-knowing individual or small set of individuals are able to make decisions for everybody,” he continues. “So we’re going to disperse power, which means things happen slower. Which means that people have to compromise.”

This particular statement might not land well amid widespread distress over the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the right to abortion established nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade. Politico reported that five justices could overturn the precedent, despite polls that show a majority of Americans support upholding the Roe decision.

But rather than encouraging Conover’s initial skepticism, “The G Word” ends on an affirming note. The government is imperfect because the American people are imperfect, he says, echoing Obama’s comment about the “human institution.” Conover adds that “on its best days, our government is a tool that we can use together to build that better world for ourselves and each other, should we choose to.”

Americans could use an extra dose of hope, but these concluding remarks relay a somewhat disingenuous take on what is required for the government to truly serve its people — perhaps the most obvious indicator of its producers’ bias. A show of this nature would do well to take the microphone away from career politicians and continue to uplift those heard less often. At one point in the final episode, for instance, Conover speaks to a Philadelphia resident who says she aspires to run for office one day.

“This system, what people keep calling a broken system, it’s not a broken system,” she says. “It’s been built to do what it’s been doing all these years, all these decades, [which] is to put our people behind cages. So what we need to do is start breaking the system down and … putting the right people in the right places. People that’s for us. People that’s for the people.”