'Pod Save America': TV Review

The liberal counterpoint to conservative talk radio, and a lot funnier.
10/12/2018

HBO brings the popular liberal political podcast to TV for four live episodes leading up to the midterm elections.

In these fraught political times, liberals need all the comfort food they can get. Sure, there's MSNBC, but frankly, watching Rachel Maddow can get a little exhausting. Hence the huge popularity of Pod Save America, the podcast founded in the wake of Donald Trump's unexpected election victory. Hosts Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor and Dan Pfeiffer have impeccable liberal credentials, all of them having served in staff positions in the Obama administration. So the podcast offers sharp political commentary and urgent calls to activism, but does so while managing to be very funny as well. That quality instantly differentiates the show from those on the opposite side of the political spectrum because, let's face it, conservatives aren't known for their sense of humor.

Pod Save America attract millions of listeners, but as is the case with so many popular podcasts, it aspires to be seen as well as heard. Thus the arrival of the HBO television version being broadcast over the next four weeks leading up to the all-important midterm elections. The debut episode, shot in front of a live audience at a theater in Miami, Florida (one of the battleground states), was very much a no-frills affair dominated by a giant bust of the podcast's signature image, a depressed-looking George Washington wearing headphones.

In addition to the four hosts, it also featured Erin Ryan, a senior editor at The Daily Beast, who mainly seemed intent on spewing as many f-bombs as possible. And one of the promised guests was a no-show, but he had a good excuse: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, currently running for Florida governor, was busy dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Although why he felt the best use of his time was personally clearing brush, as shown in a short video, is anybody's guess.

The first topic discussed was the GOP's current strategy of playing the victim card and demonizing Democrats who, according to them, are practically running through the countryside with pitchforks attacking Republicans. The irony wasn't lost on the hosts, with Lovett protesting, "We're the norms party! We're going to go down in flames because of our fucking norms!" He also described Trump as a "chaos gremlin eating our government from the inside." (Lovett, who has extensive comedy writing experience, was not surprisingly the funniest person onstage.)

Trump is the gift to comedy who keeps on giving, and the week leading up to the broadcast was no exception. So naturally a major topic of conversation was his surreal Oval Office meeting with Kanye West, including the CNN coverage of the event that was amusingly analyzed like a sports announcer doing a play-by-play. Observing the footage of Trump at the meeting, Ryan pointed out, "Not to be superficial, but he is aging terribly."

They also discussed the political debate over health care, including Trump's recent USA Today op-ed in which, according to fact-checkers, he managed to make false or misleading statements in nearly every line. Lovett took the opportunity to deliver a hilarious harangue about the newspaper and its business traveler leadership, while Favreau more seriously talked about how high the stakes are if Republicans manage to maintain control of Congress. "It's not good, guys," he warned.

The hosts' onstage banter was generally more entertaining than the pre-planned segments, which included a mock instructional video about election canvassing, a profile of young political activists in Florida and a game show parody called Disenfranchised or Deplorable?

A notable exception was the interview with a pastor leading the fight to restore voting rights to Florida felons. It was both effective and important because the issue could well determine which way the state leans in future elections.

Future episodes will be filmed from various locations, with next week's taking place in Austin, Texas, and featuring senatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke. You can bet that the enthusiasm of the live audience for that one will be particularly intense.

Airs: Fridays, 11 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)