Critic's Notebook: The Michael Cohen Saga Is a Drama Not Ready for Primetime

Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee Solo - Getty - H 2019
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The fascination with whether or not some writer will nail the living hell we're experiencing in the age of President Donald Trump — three words so utterly hard to write or say out loud — crept up again watching snippets of the Michael Cohen Brings Down His Former Boss world tour that hit the airwaves Wednesday and made for pretty damned compelling television.

But instead of making strides toward getting the next great drama of the Trump era, the likelihood of that happening took three sharp steps backward during Cohen's testimony before Congress.

So, uh, all those former hot takes about how Americans love an anti-hero are just not true, I guess. You remember when TV was dominated by the anti-hero — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White. Very, very flawed men. Men who made mistakes. But viewers loved them. They overlooked, for the most part, their sins. They wanted those anti-heroes all to be redeemed, and for us all, in the process, to be saved. Redeemed. Justified. 

But we only like the fantasy.

We can't have super flawed political anti-heroes in real life, apparently. We only want to see it on the screen. Because no matter what you think about what Cohen has done in the past — and his abuses are robust, even just counting the ones he's fessed up to — he's not likable for everyone the way that, say, Tony Soprano was. And yet, here was a guy who dragged his warts into public once again — a public that basically wanted to stone him from all sides of the political spectrum — and performed one of the most riveting mea-culpas ever filmed for television. Yes, I lied, here's why. Yes, I did bad things and I'm going to jail for it. But I saw the light. I'm going to do the time but before I do, I'm going to try to make a few things right.

You know anti-heroes do that exact thing all the time — Soprano, Draper, White. They all recount their moments of awfulness and then tell the audience that, yeah, it's all true, but hear me when I say this, the next thing out of my mouth is going to be for the purpose of good, for something bigger than myself, for the opposite of what I did then, because it's what I believe now, despite it all.

Oh, yeah, that's classic anti-hero stuff. 

It's what Cohen did on Wednesday. 

But in the real world, where the drama is partisan, Cohen could only really sway one side of the available audience. Though, as so many have pointed out, Republicans didn't actually rush to defend Trump from the allegations or the overall moral point that Cohen rather decisively made about what a garbage fire our sitting president is. No, they just wanted to bat Cohen around for being a liar, missing the irony, failing to believe his redemptive anti-hero moment because they could not and would not, because they are soulless ghouls, too long on the trail of an even bigger liar, dragging them all down that path with no return. But Democrats could see the story more clearly, because it favored them. Someone really close to Trump turns on him — a threat from within, a threat that could topple Trump's eye-poppingly authoritarian run. So, yes, it felt like a bad person owning up, confessing — doing one good thing. And Democrats were ready to Netflix it.

It's not like anyone thought Tony Soprano was going to join the church choir. Hell, even Don Draper opened his mind and found some slice of personal nirvana in Big Sur. People change. Even bad people. Granted, there are degrees of bad — Draper was no Soprano, nor even White. But he's a flawed man. And he wanted to have some of his sins washed away. (Like they were that time he walked into the Pacific in that beautiful shot, remember? But let's not digress.)

For a moment, I could see the TV miniseries of the future on Wednesday. The weasel had regrets, had realized he'd done bad things, and since he had decided to make amends and help the special counsel and do jail time — no Manafort-esque pardon would he take — there was one last thing he wanted to do to help his name, help his conscience, to prove even incrementally to the world that he could do one good thing: He wanted to bare his soul and tell his story.

Come on, people. That's a story you've watched and loved for...well, forever.

Cohen hit POTUS harder than anyone has since he was elected (probably fraudulently) and with more gusto than anything other than the pending Mueller report. 

But Americans only love the anti-hero when it suits them. So only half the audience could support this show, this spectacle that was happening on Wednesday, in the morning and mid-day, of all terrible time slots. (And yes, it was quite a show.) It's why the vast majority of Republicans didn't like this miniseries. It was too real, too personal, too revealing to look in the eye. They wanted Big Pussy dead and off the boat, not in court telling the cold truth.

By day's end, I was convinced once again that nobody can make a miniseries or a drama about the Trump era that isn't an allegory, but even though I still think someone should at least tackle strands of it, who could write a believable drama out of this stuff? Hell, Veep, the most searing political comedy of our modern time, is about to finish its run, and will likely go out as great as it came in, yet hiding from the challenge of addressing Trump directly. It just can't be done. It's too weird and unbelievable and vile and insane.

And that really says something. When the best that can be done in the face of the most shockingly abnormal presidency in American history is weak-tea Saturday Night Live parodies or glib jabs from late-night hosts, does it speak to the failure of imagination among our best writers in Hollywood? Or to the gas-lighting madness of a bully clown who can't be adequately dramatized because he's more nightmarish than anything we'd believe in our fiction?

The latter, clearly. 

I have tons of faith in TV writers of all stripes, but nobody is going to out-Trump Trump. 

Eventually someone will crack the nut on how to depict the madness we've lived with, daily, over these years that feel like decades. But I'd bet it will either be someone from another country or it won't appear until years, maybe dozens of years, after the fact if it's home-grown.

Just look at what happened Wednesday: Republicans falling into the party line even when the look on many of their faces was akin to "I don't know, morally, why I'm doing this other than I hate Democrats more than I love my own country or the Constitution." You can't script characters like that and have them be believable. You want real, powerful villains, not caricatures and foils that a 13-year-old would construct. And yet, that's what we're dealing with.

If Wednesday's Cohen spectacle did anything it was reinforce that nothing fictional about our time on earth in these United States at this very minute will be as profoundly, unbelievably jaw-dropping as our reality. We are living a movie that no one would believe, nor willingly want to watch. 

Americans used to be suckers for traditional white hats vs. black hats, a la old-school Westerns. Even something as easy as that is blurred out of possibility now, because morality and ethics and even justice, accountability and tolerance are party-based, not people-based. How do you write a fictional version of the most rotten-core humanity we have now, with a president who lies so routinely and blatantly that it's accepted, with science-deniers emboldened, with hate-filled so-called Christians, with party-over-country Lindsey Grahams, on down the line? (How do you even create a character like Graham and make him believable on any level?)

You can't tell dramatic fictional stories about a government led by a liar who calls other people liars and partakes in gas-lighting like he's breathing air. You can't depict racists who deny they are racists and then have the audacity to call other people racists. You can't tell stories to people who refuse to believe actual truth — much less fiction — when it's presented to them in the form of video proof, audio files, documents, multi-source media accounts or from inside the actual government doing the kind of bad things you'd want to document.

We are living a story that can't be told in our time, apparently. Willful ignorance stops storytelling dead. At least for now it does.

So, for just a brief time — the good part of a day — I thought about what kind of fictional story might be made from the Congressional appearance of one Michael Cohen, anti-hero. Or what the landscape would look like if someone in television tried to write a great drama about our shared collective political experience at this moment.

And my conclusion was a question: Can it not be done, or are we just not ready for that truth?