A television critic knows what happens when one kind of viewer, who takes pride in their sophisticated ability to follow along, thinks another kind of viewer isn’t watching a complicated show the “right” way.
I often tell readers to keep watching a good show even if they struggle to keep track of all the characters and plots it’s serving; indeed, they should keep watching even if it’s sailing over their heads, because good storytelling (the writing, the acting, a consistent vision) will, eventually, always cohere. The narrative prevails, and the result is called entertainment.
This brings me, with increasing fascination, to the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, which initially drew 12 million to 13 million daytime viewers (according to Nielsen). Obviously, that’s nowhere near the passionate degree of viewership of the 1973 Watergate hearings, which our elders still talk about as if it was the most riveting thing they ever watched.
Wednesday’s testimony from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was the blockbuster episode in a drama that has rarely dragged. In fact, it’s all happening at a much faster speed than the usual pace of Washington.
Yet, one is admonished by others for not watching the present-day Capitol Hill drama the right way (or not watching it at all). Worse, there is the added scorn that comes to those who dare treat the hearings as a form of entertainment.
Last week, after opening-day testimony from two buttoned-up, persevering diplomats (one in his favorite bow tie, a detail that inevitably leads one to consider the art of costume design), NBC News tweeted out a story from one of its Washington reporters with a headline saying the hearings “lacked pizazz.”
Well. This set off a wave of complaints that the hearings are far too important to be reviewed on their ability to compel, dazzle or any of the useful descriptors frequently found in a culture critic’s arsenal.
I disagree. TV criticism can be extraordinarily useful here, primarily because, at heart, nearly everyone is a TV critic in this continuing, and by now exhausting, surreality that comes with the reality-TV presidency.
“Saturday Night Live,” which stays afloat by relying on the foibles of the Trump administration, quickly settled the matter of whether the hearings can be viewed as drama. SNL chose to lampoon both the hearings and the hesitancy to trivialize them (“pizazz”) with a wan yet somewhat effective soap-opera treatment, beginning and ending with NBC: “Days of Our Impeachment.”
Sondland’s testimony was the episode to watch, if you’re ever going to tune in — described by news-channel panels as the bombshell moment, leaving Republican members of the committee scrambling for a way to minimize the testimony of an official who, in any other context, would be regarded as an amigo. In other shows, we live for moments that center on betrayals, rattings-out, discovered texts, implications.
“Like an HBO show, it’s taking me about four episodes to get into the hearings,” tweeted Wall Street Journal reporter Joe Flint.
During a lunch break in the hearings, one of CNN’s legal analysts, Laura Coates, likened Sondland’s testimony to “Murder on the Orient Express,” “In which everyone is in on it,” she started to explain. “Spoiler alert!” one of her fellow panelists interjected.
See? We can’t help ourselves. Television is television is television. Politics is television — and art, and theater, and fashion.
Like any viewer, I have my quibbles with the pace, dialogue and structure of the hearings. I daresay the hero, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), lacks what others might call pizazz but makes up for it in resolve.
There’s also an utter failure, meanwhile, of the character meant to be the cunning antagonist, ranking minority member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). He’s like an actor who brings self-written pages to the table read, playing a character who is desperate — to the point of obnoxiousness — to keep the plot from actually moving forward. Giving a performance that only he is convinced is award-winning, he throws out all manner of tangents, in hopes that some (or any) of it might stick. The tough gunslinger dressed in black, he becomes a malfunctioning “Westworld” robot programmed to own the libs, walking in circles and shooting blanks.
But, as the hours crawl by, the characters don’t leave the lasting impression; the words do.
Rather than concentrate on testimony and questioning with a court reporter’s precision, I let it become a wash of words, the background noise of history.
I used to tell people to let “Game of Thrones” just “wash over” them, rather than try to understand all of it or keep track of all the names and places. The promise being that the waves of plot — the narrative — prevail.
Let the hearings become snippets in the context of no-context:
Ukraine, not Russia. He apparently feared most. Hacking and dumping operation. Above those of the United States. Did not give an expletive about Ukraine. Found himself increasingly embroiled. While in Kyiv. Would pledge to send someone. I will just say this. Indeed, my own personal view. Given the facts as they existed. Given what we knew at the time.
A friend on the West Coast has perfected this approach, jotting down phrases from the hearing (and from cable news networks’ chronicling of the end of the world in general) and then recording herself reading them in a haunting and beautiful monotone, which she texts to me as voice files. It’s ASMR, it’s art, it’s a way of processing.
For some completely inexplicable reason. Some far-fetched malfeasance. Their next asinine theory. We were playing the hand that we were dealt. We followed the president’s orders. I was acting in good faith, I was acting in good faith. Everyone was in the loop. If I said I did, I did. At the express direction of the president of the United States. It was no secret. Mike, thanks for schlepping to Europe.
Is that watching it wrong?
Turns out President Trump, that TV addict nonpareil, watches it this way, too. No sooner had Sondland read an opening statement than Trump was on the South Lawn, waving a notepad, on which he’d written down the phrases that jumped out at him:
I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.
It’s a TV show about the backwash of words.