There’s a case building that television — more than wealth or family or real estate, certainly more than politics — is what President Trump loves most. The evidence was there all along. A camera in the room is the only thing that seems to truly animate him, for it brings with it the promise of big (or easily inflatable) ratings. A television show is the only thing that ever offered Trump, briefly, a unanimous and undisputed success. Absent the camera, he is an even bigger fan of watching TV, much like his fellow Americans who harbor a hard addiction to watching cable-news shows morning, noon and night.
There have been reports (usually anonymously sourced) that some of Trump’s staff members wish he didn’t watch so much, but why would he stop? The long-offered promise of truly interactive TV has arrived for at least one American: him. Cable news hangs on his every word, while he returns the favor by mimicking some of its worst talking points, often within enough minutes to create an unsettling semblance of harmony.
Sad! As HBO’s John Oliver showed in a clip Sunday night on the long-awaited return of his satirical politics show, “Last Week Tonight,” Trump is so addicted to cable news that the cabin of Air Force One now echoes with the cheapo commercials that accompany his all-day diet of noise, including the Empire flooring jingle (“Eight-hundred, five-eight-eight . . .”) Our president, Oliver joked, is like the septuagenarian who has collapsed and died alone in a house with the TV blaring; it takes neighbors days to notice anything amiss.
Thus, Oliver concluded, the only way to get a factual argument across to the president is to make a set of catheter ads to air during cable news, featuring a folksy ol’ cowboy who subliminally explains such necessary concepts as the nuclear triad. Oliver’s ads began airing in the Washington market on Monday morning on Fox, CNN and MSNBC. Maybe just maybe Trump noticed.
Meanwhile, a fomenting Trump resistance movement has seen that televised mockery might be effective in creating the sort of tiny cracks that eventually cause meaningful collapse. The mockery required for this job is not the kind of whip-smart, fact-based, ironic criticism inherited from Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and still practiced with dedicated verve by TBS’s Samantha Bee, NBC’s Seth Meyers, CBS’s Stephen Colbert and Oliver (who spent 24 minutes Sunday night on a segment devoted to the preservation of the concept of “facts.”)
Rather it’s the plain, old-fashioned, over-the-top mockery that shows a White House hopelessly out of control, compromised, flaccid from the get-go and comically inept. This was best displayed by none other than Melissa McCarthy, a comedic film and TV star recruited by her pals at NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” to lampoon White House press secretary Sean Spicer on the show’s Feb. 4 episode and again a week later.
The sketches were so brutally effective — starting from their obvious top layer of derision for Spicer’s bellicose, combative style, all the way down to the more ingeniously subliminal dig of having women portray the innumerable men who surround and advise the president — that they set off a wave of excitement on the left: Can it really be as easy as dishing up the most basic form of insult humor and then broadcasting it far and wide? Does electoral revenge reside in a barrage of unsophisticated, easy-to-write tiny-hands jokes (or, in a supercut from Oliver’s show, the insultingly spot-on “Donald Trump doesn’t know how to shake hands”), rather than a clever, humorously but laboriously spun counterpoint of wonky facts?
Perhaps. In anticipation of SNL’s Feb. 11 episode — hosted for the 17th time by actor Alec Baldwin, who has found some always-needed career rejuvenation as the show’s go-to Trump impersonator since last fall’s campaign — America’s TV addicts and critics (who now include most of the political press corps) rubbed their hands together in anticipatory glee: Would the episode be just mildly devastating or completely annihilating?
That the episode was found a tad wanting is nothing new to lifetime SNL watchers. The show is nothing if not a decades-long study in demand-resistance, causing its viewers to always desire more than it actually delivers. Lorne Michaels, who now controls far more of the TV comedy realm than a mere 90 minutes on Saturday nights, wisely avoids taking requests from his audience, because we tend, as a voting bloc, to suggest the easiest and least original premises and jokes.
Yet, sensing the desires of the Internet zeitgeist, SNL featured a short, melancholy film in which cast member Leslie Jones floated the idea that she, not Baldwin, should step into the role of Trump. Her fellow cast members interrogated her intent as Jones sat in a makeup chair acquiring an orange comb-over, wondering whether there’s a workable shtick here: Could having a black woman play Trump be an effective weapon against the watcher-in-chief? The ultimate insult, as it were?
This assumes that Trump still watches SNL. He may profess not to — but honestly, come on. It’s hard to believe that he’d be able to resist looking at anything that’s about him, or even, perhaps, taking credit for the show’s impressive jump in ratings. SNL is now enjoying its highest-rated season in 22 years, according to Variety.
Lest anyone forget, many viewers of SNL still hold the show culpable in providing some of the crucial hot air that floated Trump to his many victories, by allowing him to host while he was a serious contender for the presidential race. The time for truly effective mockery came and went while SNL and the rest of the comedy world dilly-dallied with Trump.
All presidents have watched more than their share of TV. One thinks of LBJ’s custom array of TV sets in the Oval Office to track all three networks in breaking-news situations, or the Reagans enjoying a night in front of the tube with their TV dinner tray tables. Even the Obamas made sure to get on the inside track with HBO, having “Game of Thrones” screeners delivered before they aired.
As we continue to ask ourselves what Trump watches, and how or whether it shapes his decisions, it’s probably worth noting that there’s a lot he doesn’t watch — or at least, we’ve never been told of anything remotely interesting in his DVR queue.
If insider accounts are to be believed, it’s all news, all the time — and perhaps still looking in on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” the show that still credits him as an executive producer even though he goes out of his way to pooh-pooh its current iteration. (About this, he’s not wrong. The only reason left to watch “Celebrity Apprentice” might be if you’re in a Nielsen family and want to irritate the president.)
In other words, he’s missing so much — some of the greatest television ever made, much of it rich in instructive, metaphorical storytelling about power and moral consequence.
Even though Trump appears to lack the necessary attention span, I still find myself wishing that he had joined me and the 10 or so other Americans who were transfixed by HBO’s “The Young Pope,” a befuddlingly beautiful 10-episode series that just concluded. It’s about a new pope, Pius XIII (Jude Law), who is determined to drain the swamp that is Vatican City. He is steadfast in his conservative beliefs and unconcerned with alienating the church’s liberal side. He loathes the press. He won’t travel. He is consumed by a sort of divine narcissism and he can deliver a real scorcher of a sermon to his underlings.
Yet, not only did Pius win over the cardinals with his agenda, he also, finally, convinced the rest of us that his aim was true. In 10 hours, he went from a horrifying firebrand to a persuasive messenger, maybe even a pope for the ages.
In this way, TV always has something to tell us, even when we’re the president. And the president might seem more human if he would very publicly pick up a few, well-made scripted shows and tell us what he thought about them. The first step is learning how to change the channel and break some bad viewing habits.