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Hollywood’s award-giving academies have spent recent months working to clarify the definitions of “TV” and “movies” so that, God forbid, the wrong things aren’t accidentally eligible for Emmys and Oscars at the same time.
In a blurred media landscape, it’s probably less important to make sure the proper terminology is in place than it is to encourage storytellers to make smart use of the strengths of different media that are not, no matter what some people seem to think, interchangeable.
Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes
Airdate: 9 p.m. Monday, July 12 (HBO)
Directors: Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
My favorite recent example of media blur — “favorite” in terms of blur, not necessarily quality — is HBO’s Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes.
Were one to source this six-episode half-hour series in the same way one might source heritage pork at a pretentious bistro, it would go a little something like this: Ronan Farrow began his investigation into decades of alleged sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein at NBC News, before it was eventually published at The New Yorker. The process behind the investigation then spawned Farrow’s book Catch and Kill, which in turn spawned a successful audiobook and a successful podcast. The podcast has now spawned a TV show that’s basically the podcast with placeholder visuals.
But if the podcast was basically the audiobook, only with people besides Farrow doing voices, and the audiobook was basically the book with Farrow doing voices, and the book was basically an extended footnote for Farrow’s reporting … it’s easy to be interested, somewhat easy to be entertained, and very difficult to quite see the purpose of this HBO incarnation.
Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato take us through the Ronan Farrow basics again, bringing in many key figures who will be familiar from every previous step of this story. The series starts with Filipina-Italian model Ambra Gutierrez, whose recording of a scary encounter with Weinstein should have been a smoking gun years before the actual smoking guns. Subsequent installments focus on the travails of other reporters trying to crack the Weinstein story (The Hollywood Reporter‘s Kim Masters is the star of the second episode), NBC News’ compromised decision to kill Farrow’s story, and the shady covert forces allegedly employed by Weinstein to threaten reporters and quash various exposés. There’s a whole episode primarily dedicated to the fact-checking process at The New Yorker, meaning that not only is Catch and Kill a Hollywood story, a love letter to investigative journalism and an espionage thriller, but it’s also a modern update on Bright Lights, Big City.
The story that Farrow was reporting and the story of Farrow’s challenges reporting that story are so good and so essential that it’s possible, if not always easy, to ignore how thoroughly any sense of differentiation between the two has been lost through various recountings, and how Bailey and Barbato’s attempts to expand the podcast visually in the transition to television range from negligible to borderline laughable.
When the “visuals” consist of Farrow sitting at a microphone talking to a source, Catch and Kill is fine. There are a few too many cutaways to him nodding sensitively — the number of Farrow close-ups is roughly equal to the number of close-ups of his interview subjects. The archival footage of Weinstein and various locations and incidents within the history is pretty rudimentary, but with the impeccably recorded audio pushed to the front of the soundtrack, it just feels like a podcast, as if you could simply close your eyes and not lose anything from the experience.
You might say, “So what is the point in watching?” and I’d mention the unintentional comedy of the directors’ use of broad documentary-style B-roll, the sort of imagery that’s been entrenched in the genre for so long and probably should have been phased out after two seasons of American Vandal. Take the sequence where Gutierrez talks about meeting with the NYPD: The directors dutifully cut to a gauzy close-up of a badge, and then she talks about giving a statement and they cut to a close-up of a coffee mug with a pencil and pad in the background, and then somebody mentions that she got a call on her cellphone and they cut to an entirely unrelated buzzing cellphone. This is not visual storytelling. It’s thumb-twiddling, and there’s a lot of it. It will probably make you giggle, and if it does, that will happen in inappropriate places, given that absolutely nothing in Farrow’s saga is meant to be funny. So that’s what you’ll miss if you treat HBO’s Catch and Kill as a podcast. Over the entire three hours, there wasn’t a single time I thought, “That’s an aesthetically interesting or smart way to visualize something.”
At the same time, I was never bored, which somebody will think proves that there are still unrealized approaches to this same material. It’s notable that the upcoming feature She Said is based on Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s reporting on Weinstein (Kantor is mentioned in Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes, but only mentioned) and not on Farrow’s. It’s easy to imagine Catch and Kill getting a scripted, limited series treatment in the next couple of years, presumably with an A-list actor nodding sensitively as Farrow. Hopefully whoever is recruited to write and direct that limited series will have ideas for a different way of tackling this material, because they’ve definitely run out of the same ways of tackling the material.
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