In the last few years, possibly aided by the rise of reality television, it’s not weird to see those best known for their work on Capitol Hill cross platforms to become involved in the motion picture or television industry.
Of course, plenty have traded DC for CNN. And former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama took it a step further when they created Higher Ground Productions, which has produced documentaries like “Crip Camp” and Netflix comedies like “Fatherhood.” But getting into the content game in front of the cameras involves the creation of a persona that strikes a balance between the political and personal. People may be divided on politics, but everyone can come together for a heartwarming film or television show (theoretically). That’s the hope, at least, behind Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s “Gutsy.”
The Apple TV+ project, an offshoot of the Clintons’ book series of the same name, is an eight-episode docuseries wherein the former Secretary of State and her daughter meet with women they’ve deemed “gutsy,” and talk about important issues. “Gutsy” isn’t just about showcasing powerful women, but also reminding the audience why Hillary and Chelsea themselves are powerful women. And not just powerful, but fun, easygoing, and relatable! In between convos on hate crimes and marriage, the pair spend time looking at photo albums, taking improv classes, and hiking. The audience is meant to understand these two are no different than the women they’re depicting: just average people crusading for change. However, that doesn’t exactly work because Hillary Clinton will never be just a regular grandma.
The problem lies in just how heavy-handed the endeavor feels. You certainly feel the genuine ease and love when mother and daughter are sharing corny jokes, or getting real and talking about their marriages and motherhood. But then there are moments that feel too forced, like Hillary doing a script read of a fake sketch for “The Amber Ruffin Show” about Hillary’s adoration of pantsuits. Or Hillary telling Megan Thee Stallion about how much Chelsea loves rap music. It’s easy to understand why the show would like to remind audiences that the Clintons are just folks, especially after the last six years of especially vitriolic political turmoil. After decades of criticisms against Hillary Clinton, warranted and not, the show attempts to take audiences behind the curtain and show the pain and hurt the Clinton women have endured, only to come out smiling in the end.
But it’s hard not to see these lighter moments on the show as pretty cringe-inducing. That moment with Hillary talking about Chelsea’s love of rap music almost plays like the Clintons are reminding the audience that they appreciate people of color, or at least that Chelsea is cool and hip because she listens to that music. Yes, we know Hillary Clinton loves pantsuits, but she never seems to criticize or look deeper at why people think that. She tells a story about her adopting the suits as a means of preventing photographers from taking photos up her skirt, but she fails to note how her embracing of it comes off as unknowing parody. Or perhaps she does know this and just doesn’t want to do anything that smells of self-criticism — that happens frequently on “Gutsy.”
Case in point, episodes 2 and 3 both deal with crime and justice reform. On one hand, the episodes contain beautiful moments of Chelsea connecting with a woman whose boyfriend tried to kill her. But that’s before Hillary and Kim Kardashian sit down to “quiz” each other on which of them knows the most legal terms. Later, in episode 3, Hillary talks about justice and prison reform in an episode that never brings up how her husband’s signing of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act (commonly referred to as the Clinton crime bill) fueled the mass incarceration crisis we’re currently seeing. If the goal of the series is to show women who are changing the world, while simultaneously showing how Hillary and Chelsea are hoping to do the same, there needs to be more honesty about the world that we’re living in and the role the Clintons played in creating it.
It points to a common issue that is going to continue to pop up as more public figures like the Clintons and the Sussexes transition into becoming TV personalities: When does fiction obscure fact? With their lives lived so heavily in the public, with the actions of the Clinton White House already written down in the annals of history, are their decisions to ignore certain missteps the best way forward for important television?
There’s something to be said about the fact that the Clintons can leverage their public fame to get a show like this made, and their hearts feel like they’re in the right place. They’re using this show to promote their normalcy, but they’re also opening up the door for indigenous and Black female activists to discuss their causes. But when the Clintons try to relate by making it about them, it often feels like “Gutsy” is more of a platform for the Clintons, with a little side activism.
“Gutsy” isn’t a bad show, but this twee version of politics ostensibly celebrating women doesn’t work. There’s something too pristine, too cutesy about important issues like police reform or even something simple like motherhood being presented in this sanitized way; “Gutsy” has an entire motherhood episode that feels like it lives in the 1950s instead of a world where Roe v. Wade is done. It’s ironic that Hillary Clinton posts regularly about abortion and women’s reproductive health online yet the episode — probably filmed before the actual Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade — comically has Hillary asking, “I thought we’d decided this?” when someone brings up overturning Roe. Abortion here becomes an eye-rolling “why are we talking about this” moment, as opposed to a serious discussion that could expand out to gutsy women who endured forced motherhood.
Hint for other politicians getting ideas: It may be best to be behind the scenes of these projects so the baggage isn’t prominently laid out on the show’s doorstep.
“Gutsy” streams every Friday on Apple TV+.