On the Eve of the Presidential Primaries, Docuseries Get Political
John Heilemann

In the series premiere of “Truth and Power” (Pivot), Black Lives Matter activist Patrisse Cullors mounts the stage during a Democratic town hall and calls our state of affairs a “state of emergency.” Interrupting a Q&A between journalist and immigration reform advocate Jose Antonio Vargas and presidential aspirant Martin O’Malley, Cullors and her fellow protestors demand to be heard, and with the presidential election set to kick off in earnest—the Iowa caucus is February 1, followed by the New Hampshire primary on February 9—TV networks, if not always the candidates themselves, are listening. The form’s most popular entries may be still be “true crime,” but the docuseries is getting political. 

READ MORE: “‘Serial,’ ‘The Jinx,’ ‘Making a Murderer,’ and the Rise of the Prestige Docuseries”

While in-depth coverage of “The Circus” of campaign season—to use the title of Showtime’s new series (trailer below), featuring Bloomberg Politics wonks Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (“Game Change”)—is nothing new, it’s clear that the current spate of well-timed nonfiction projects marks a shift in where we expect to find reporting that goes beyond the “horse race” narrative of polls, expectations, and prognostications. As the traditional broadcast sources—the major networks’ moribund nightly news programs and the 24-hour cable channels—continue to slice and dice the election into infinitesimal sound bites, surrounded by hours of blather masquerading as “analysis,” viewers in search of something to chew on increasingly need to look elsewhere, and networks not usually associated with TV news are stepping into the breach.  

This isn’t being done purely out of principle, of course. Canny, forward-thinking outlets have long recognized that young, diverse audiences are moving online and on-demand in search of information—and, by extension, that there’s money to be made in gathering and reporting the news there, if not now then in the future. The most successful pioneer in this shift has been Vice Media, in particular its HBO programming. But Vice and HBO’s competitors have begun to take notice, and an election year is an opportune time to launch coverage of politics and public affairs: the whole world, as the old protest chant had it, is watching.

To wit, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos noted, in conversation with CEO Reed Hastings last October, that the likelihood of the streaming giant “competing directly” with Vice in the next two years is “probably high.” (The company later walked back the implications of Sarandos’ comment, saying that it does not mean the company wants to get into the “reporting and live news business.”) Premium channel EPIX announced Tuesday that Norman Lear, Shonda Rhimes, and Common will executive produce a docuseries focused on inequality, “America Divided,” featuring America Ferrara, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jesse Williams and set to debut later this year. Satirical news and late-night talk shows now host politicians, entrepreneurs, and activists along with actors and musicians—Larry Wilmore, on Comedy Central, convenes a roundtable on protests in Baltimore, Stephen Colbert invites DeRay McKesson to explain white privilege on “The Late Show” (CBS), and Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” promises to disrupt the late-night “sausage party.” The times they are a-changin’, and the habits of a new generation of TV viewers and on-screen talent is changing with them.

READ MORE: “Late Night’s Revolution Remains Unfinished” 

That none of the aforementioned series are “news” in the old-fashioned sense of the term is exactly the point: Americans’ “trust in media” has measurably declined since 2005, according to Gallup, reaching historic lows in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and Millennials’ trust has been slipping the fastest. There is a sense, not wholly unwarranted, that the institutions and formats to which citizens once turned for information have spent a decade failing us, and TV viewers seem more and more willing to cull that information from fresh sources. Bemoan the rise of “infotainment” all you want, but if audiences are passing over Lester Holt and Wolf Blitzer for Trevor Noah and Shane Smith, the way the broadcast networks and 24-hour cable news channels have done things since time immemorial is (“finally,” you might say; “mercifully,” you might say) dying.  

“Truth and Power,” directed by Brian Knappenberger (“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”)
and narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a fitting emblem of this ongoing transformation. It’s on a relatively new network, Pivot (home of the brilliant “Please Like Me“), geared toward younger viewers. It’s focused on exposing corporate corruption and government malfeasance, picking up the progressive mantle that MSNBC abandoned. The subjects of its first episode, on Black Lives Matter, include Cullors, McKesson, Alicia Garza, and Ashley Yates (better known by her Twitter handle, @brownblaze): the people of color who made a movement, armed only with social media and their commitment to the notion that a state of emergency for black Americans is a state of emergency for all Americans.

If this is what the TV news of the future looks like, it may be just the change we need.

“The Circus” airs Sundays at 8pm on Showtime. “Truth and Power” premieres Friday, January 22 at 10pm on Pivot. Vice’s latest special report, “Fighting ISIS,” airs Sunday, January 31 at 10pm on HBO. The fourth season of “Vice” premieres Friday, February 5 at 11pm on HBO.

READ MORE: “From Vice to Netflix, TV News Adapts to an On-Demand World”


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