'The New Yorker Presents': TV Review

The New Yorker Presents Paul Giamatti as Honored Balzacin –still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A nice addition if you already subscribe to Amazon, but similar fare exists elsewhere.

A visually pleasing but not groundbreaking new series that brings to life many of the stories and features of the prestigious magazine.

At this point both Amazon Studios and Netflix have shown that they are interested in getting into business with just about anyone or any place willing to make a TV show that will be interesting to their respective subscribers. In essence, neither streaming platform has a very clear identity other than, on the surface, “That sounds good” and, probably on a deeper economic level, “This will work out for our business model.”

That’s certainly no knock, but there is an assumption that both services are getting the newest and brightest and perhaps most different (anti-TV?) of what’s out there when that’s not actually the case.

Take Amazon’s new partnership with venerable magazine The New Yorker, a series called The New Yorker Presents — by Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney and his Jigsaw Productions — that is a mostly nonfiction showcase of its many stories, people working for the magazine and favorite features. It’s not exactly groundbreaking for television, which has done these kinds of unscripted explorations for years, but it’s a nice little add-on if you’re already a Prime subscriber and someone who readily views Amazon’s TV offerings.

That is, getting in bed with The New Yorker is certainly going to be “on brand” for lots of Amazon subscribers, so it’s a fine idea.

And there are parts of The New Yorker Presents — which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday evening (episodes two and three were made available for critics and the first is on the Amazon site) — that make you wonder why such a collaboration took so long. Gibney and Jigsaw do an excellent job in the opening credits of bringing some of those beautiful and evocative New Yorker covers to life in animation, and any time the series decides to give viewers a look inside the magazine at its people the results never fail.

But right now, in this early going, those snippets are all too short — a brief glimpse of Roz Chast doing her cartoons or two diligent employees in the fact-checking department are bits that should be expanded on. Just watching someone work, a slow visual meditation on their environment and what they do, is one of those unexpected visual treats that Charles Kuralt and CBS News Sunday Morning did so well for so long.

In The New Yorker Presents there’s a lovely, slow pan through the archives where bound books containing the names Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, John Cheever and J.D. Salinger and their collected New Yorker stories rest with dignity — it’s an all-too-short bit of porn for New Yorker fanatics, and they will undoubtedly want more and lengthier peeks like that. Any time the camera is in the office, the show feels special. It’s not clear whether Gibney and company realize that yet.

When the series moves outside to bring to life in HD the many stories readers have become familiar with through the years, the results are more mixed. There’s a bull-riding story that initially feels intimate and then seems like something you’ve seen hundreds of times before and ends mostly without a real ending — a recurring issue in these early episodes.

This is particularly evident in a story about Atlantic City that feels only one-quarter developed. Where The New Yorker Presents feels more like the pages are coming to life are in bits like an essay from Edwidge Danticat titled “Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain” (even though, in the poetic description, she repeats the phrase “black bodies in motion, in danger and in pain”), where words and images coalesce in colorful clarity. Elsewhere, the series seems original when, in a short, odd, funny little film, Paul Giamatti plays Honore de Balzac discussing the alleged 50 cups of coffee he drank every day.

It’s not that The New Yorker Presents doesn’t get the more full-feature pieces right — a piece on delusions and people suffering from “The Truman Show Syndrome,” where they think they are being filmed for a reality series 24 hours a day, is intriguing not because of the standard psychiatrist interview but due to the drawings from a patient who details his story but doesn’t show his face. That combination works, whereas other segments feel like you can find them anywhere else on TV.

And even when Gibney himself does a mini-doc, from a story by Lawrence Wright detailing how the CIA withheld information from the FBI prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and what might have been had it not — feels like it needs another hour or so, not the limited minutes that Gibney is held to here. That might be a minor gripe — wanting more from a filmmaker like Gibney because the form is too limiting — but it shows some of the issues The New Yorker Presents will run up against as the ongoing series gets dropped on Amazon’s site. It’s a nice addition if you already subscribe, but it’s not different enough, alone, to make you want to have it at all costs.

Studio: Amazon Studios
Creator: Alex Gibney

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine