In the shambolic but weirdly compelling evolution of “The Trump Show,” it’s worth noting just how tightly scripted the Robert Mueller plotline has been, and never more so than this week.
One of the biggest problems with “The Trump Show” is that it has so many subplots running that it’s difficult to know which are worth getting invested in and which are merely going to hang in the air as perpetually underdeveloped tangents. The Mueller story never really fell in this category, but it’s burbled along quietly in the background, refusing to indulge in the cheap drama that gives so many other arcs on this show their lift. And when it delivered, it really delivered. The indictments that the special counsel and his staffers handed down this week included a flashy element — the charges against former campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose shiny ties and shady clients make him a stock figure, but an awfully effective one — and the news that former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had previously pleaded guilty and turned cooperator.
Now that’s how you pull off a slow boil: with a plot development that works on multiple levels and sets up the next stage of that particular story in a fashion that no one saw coming. The results are already trickling out: Sam Clovis, who was tangled up with Papadopoulos’s scheme to make connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, withdrew from consideration for a top post at the Department of Agriculture. More significantly, we learned that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has turned over documents to Mueller’s team amidst rumors that Trump has begun to believe that Kushner has given him bad political advice, a development that could strike at the heart of the show’s family dynamic.
It’s easy for inconsistent TV shows (which “The Trump Show” absolutely is) to use surprise in a cheap, ultimately deflationary way. But keeping Mueller a hovering figure, and emphasizing his diligence and sobriety, and then revealing a development that is striking but ultimately highly logical, is just some purely great writing. I can be rough on “The Trump Show,” but it deserves a lot of credit for the execution here.
It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t merely Mueller himself who got some more restrained writing this week. Given how “The Trump Show” has proceeded in other episodes, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised for the episode to end with Trump firing Mueller. It’s the sort of cliffhanger the show loves, but that also means the series has burned through plot at an astounding rate, creating problems for its long-term viability.
Instead, “The Trump Show” did something subtler. Yes, the president tweeted. But more importantly, the show had him do something understated and hilarious: He called the New York Times to counter reporting in The Post that he was furious about the indictments by insisting that “I’m not actually angry at anybody.” Trump so often clowns himself in operatic terms and in ways that target or harm other people that there was something weirdly funny by watching him try to play nice, in seeing him try to tell an obviously implausible lie in polite terms. I think “The Trump Show” would be better, not to mention less destabilizing and emotionally agonizing, if it found more ways to work in this mode. But of course, if Trump’s behavior were generally this restrained and small, “The Trump Show” wouldn’t be “The Trump Show” at all.