'The Hunt for the Trump Tapes With Tom Arnold': TV Review

Unquestionably indignant, questionably entertaining.
9/18/2018

Is Tom Arnold's new Vice show a less-than-informative Michael Moore-style documentary investigation or a less-than-amusing Larry David-style scripted comedy? And does it matter?

If Vice's The Hunt for the Trump Tapes With Tom Arnold has a theme or message, it's that being dogged in pursuing partially obscured truths about Donald Trump is a necessary form of civic engagement.

If Vice's The Hunt for the Trump Tapes With Tom Arnold has a secondary theme or message, it's that if we're waiting on Arnold to serve as the investigative journalist responsible for bringing those partially obscured truths to light, we're in a lot of trouble.

I agree with both points and after watching two episodes, I'm inclined to be a little generous and accept that although there's no intent for it to be as bad as it is, it would practically undermine the entire show if it were good, since the idea of Arnold as an investigative reporter is supposed to be just as absurd as the idea of Trump as president. If this is your analogy, you can't parallel a presidential administration you consider a failure with a pseudo-journalistic comedy that actually comes together perfectly.

The Hunt for the Trump Tapes premieres Tuesday night on Vice and is getting a wave of publicity from whatever alleged confrontation Arnold and The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett had at a charity event over Emmy weekend, which isn't the same as getting a wave of publicity for having accomplished the series' goals. But so it goes!

What, exactly, is The Hunt for the Trump Tapes? It's a little unclear even after watching a fourth of the first season's eight half-hour episodes. I legitimately can't tell you if it is Arnold's attempt to do a Michael Moore-style exposé about Trump or if it's a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedy about Arnold attempting to do a Moore-style exposé about Trump or if it's some uncomfortable and not truly successful hybrid in the middle in which the series wants to be both explosive and also hilarious when it's neither. So it's more Finding Bigfoot With Tom Arnold than Tom Arnold's The Jinx.

The most salacious of the eponymous tapes would, of course, be what Arnold calls "the pee-pee tape," the notorious and, to this moment, purely alleged recording involving Trump, Russian prostitutes and urine — not the sort of conversation we've frequently had about other presidents in the past — and discussed in the Steele dossier. The pee-pee tape is what the title instantly calls to mind and it's the inspiration for the act-in/act-out visual of video cassettes dripping an unspecified yellow liquid. They are not, however, the focus of either of the show's initial episodes.

Fortunately, there are other tapes. They're just not as exciting.

The first episode finds Arnold pursuing recordings from Trump's hours of interviews with Howard Stern. It's a quest that involves an unfulfilling visit to Stern's program and interactions with a pair of "transparency activists." He is not, incidentally, looking for anything recorded in secrecy or conversations had off-the-air. He just wants an archive of the episodes that aired as part of Stern's radio program, and if you're thinking, "But haven't we heard plenty of ugly material from those interviews? Trump and Stern wildly degrading women and talking about Trump behavior backstage at Trump-owned beauty pageants that would be considered gross and pervy at best?" Sure! Arnold spends a lot of an episode engaged in a search for material that began its life publicly available and has been recirculated widely and to no tangible impact. The idea that an Arnold-hosted show on Vice is going to reach a single person who is unaware that Trump gave icky interviews to Stern regularly for decades is a bit ludicrous.

The second episode is more star-driven and goes a little bit deeper. Arnold is gunning for behind-the-scenes footage from The Apprentice, following up on claims from producers and contestants that Trump was regularly saying sexist or racist things on set and producer Burnett must have some of that footage somewhere. While Arnold has been vocally critical of Burnett's complicity in Trump's rise and while stories of the Arnold-Burnett fracas might whet appetites, any direct approach between Arnold and Burnett is not included in these first two episodes. There's a very small and staged protest at Burnett's production office, but that's the extent to which Arnold really approaches or calls Burnett out thus far. He goes, instead, for a conversation with Celebrity Apprentice contestant Penn Jillette, who has hardly been quiet about his Trump thoughts, and former Celebrity Apprentice host Arnold Schwarzenegger, who we all know doesn't have any tapes of Trump doing anything, though that lets Ah-nold and Arnold talk about True Lies.

As a Moore-style rambling provocateur, Arnold's approach is questionable and his yield is limited. I don't want to say "nonexistent," because Arnold finds some stuff, even if it's a mixture of previously familiar material and anonymous speculation that can't be substantiated. There isn't a second here that's going to change anybody's opinion about anything. Jillette accurately raises the question of whether anything Arnold could possibly find could possibly change anybody's opinion about anything. Arnold's answer is that he can't just wait twiddling his thumbs until 2020, a reasonable non-answer.

As a Larry David-style version of himself, Arnold is perhaps even less successful. The premise-establishing sequence that precedes all episodes includes Arnold having to repeat a grand pronouncement due to the din of the air conditioning. It prepares the artist for a certain amount of artificiality. That's just the start. I chuckled at least once at a running gag involving establishing exteriors of Arnold's house, which begins with a European-style chateau. I chuckled much less at Jacob, Arnold's writing assistant, who is presented as his sidekick on his misadventures. Whether Jacob is a real person playing himself or an actor in a scripted role doesn't matter, since he adds little in either capacity. He's not a funny character and since he feels like he might as well be an actor, he makes it harder to know whether Arnold's interactions with his celebrity friends are meant to be badly spontaneous or badly scripted.

Jacob's defining moment is his description of Arnold: "Tom likes to rant and ramble. It can be difficult to keep up with him. There's a fair bit of mania in Tom, but in the best way possible." Parts of that are definitely true. I've interviewed Arnold for a variety of projects over the years and he is incontrovertibly passionate, rarely requiring more than a question or two to fill a full conversation. Here, it verges on uncomfortable to watch him at times, he's in such high dudgeon so perpetually. I suspect that the artificial and staged comedic contrivances were added to provide structure and to keep the show from just being a nervous, sputtering Arnold monologue. Whether you'll gain much from Jacob waiting in the car while Arnold goes in pursuit of answers (or celebrity friends) or Deray Mckesson helpfully explaining why it'd be bad if it turned out that Trump used the N-word remains to be seen. I did not.

The Hunt for the Trump Tapes preaches to roughly the same choir that Sacha Baron Cohen played to in Who Is America?, minus Cohen's latex-heavy character work and without even the illusion that he's bringing anything to light that wasn't illuminated before. I can nod enthusiastically with Arnold's nonstop indignation, but if his new show was meant to educate me or amuse me, it failed.

Premieres: Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (Vice)