In the second episode of FX’s New York Times docuseries The Weekly, a father begins to cry recounting how he purchased a taxi medallion from the city of New York in order to operate his own cab business, only to find himself in massive, predatory debt. Mohammed is an immigrant, a husband and an entrepreneur who was delighted when he was finally able to make this surefire investment — but on a salary of $22,000 a year and owing nearly a million dollars for this license, he’s trapped under a financial boulder. “I know so many drivers who killed themselves,” he stammers, tears welling. “But I have a family. I love my family. So, I don’t want to kill myself.”
It’s a gut-wrenching and disarming moment, your empathy whirring in perhaps the most effective scene in the most effective episode of the first four weeks of the series. So why does it also feel a little rushed?
Think of the The Weekly as a half-hour informercial for the Times’ most attention-grabbing investigative pieces. Each bleak chapter takes you into the shallow waters of a top story already covered in-depth by the newspaper, following a clockwork episode formula that only serves to intensify an air of sanctimonious artifice: A Times reporter introduces a controversial event via voiceover narration, interviews the vulnerable victims, adds up the facts for the audience, scrapes together a few hard-hitting soundbites from the villains in the climax and then sprinkles on a brief and bittersweet “where are they now” epilogue. You’re caught in a whirlwind of information that barely seems to scratch the surface of the topic. (Each story could probably be a two-hour Alex Gibney movie.) Yet still, the episodes also feel interminable due to the misery-porn subject matters.
This is, of course, all by design. The Weekly doesn’t showcase these mini-documentaries to elucidate the newspaper’s grimmest stories. Instead, it merely advertises their articles, offering abridged facsimiles intended to entice you with small details and big feelings, then beg you to check out the full report.
This is not to say that these stories don’t matter — they do, of course, and I commend the staggering work these reporters are doing to uncover injustices. The Weekly covers everything from the T.M. Landry College Preparatory scandal, where administrators at a private Louisiana high school allegedly abused their students and falsified transcripts for elite college admissions, to the Trump administration’s policy of family separation for asylum seekers, which placed a four-month-old child with a foster family until the infant didn’t recognize his own parents anymore.
However, if you’re compelled to sample this series, then there’s a strong likelihood you were probably already familiar with these cases. Which raises the question: Why would I watch The Weekly when I could read a more comprehensive, contextualized and analytical version of this story in less time than a 25-minute episode?
If you actually show up to ignite some supplemental emotions the page or screen can’t provide, then prepare for confrontational interviews that feel about as authentic as warring Real Housewives sitting down for a boozy brunch. These contrived moments pit the journalist against the Big Bad of the week, edited to catch the latter in an act of dickishness: an apoplectic school principal raving about his own crucifixion; an avaricious official blaming ridesharing apps alone for ruining the lives of cab drivers; an impassive ISIS recruit justifying the murders of four cycling tourists in Tajikistan. It’s not the facts that grate, but the format.
The Weekly is less a raw, immersive VICE-style docuseries than a smug, hammy marketing tool. “We want to believe that in America, if you work hard, you’ll succeed,” one reporter pontificates at the denouement of his episode. “But if the government fails in its responsibilities to the people, the American dream can become just that. A dream.” Uh, consider my heartstrings DOA.
Executive producers: Mat Skene, Jason Stallman, Sam Dolnick, Stephanie Preiss, Ken Druckerman, Banks Tarver, Mary Robertson
Airs: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)