Podcasts have, by and large, failed as television shows. Pod Save America’s abysmal election specials are perhaps the most notable examples of a podcast that didn’t translate to TV. But with the exception of Maron, which followed a familiar semi-autobiographical sitcom structure and starred a podcast host who’s been acting since 1996, the eagerness of networks to take advantage of the podcast boom hasn’t translated to audience eagerness to watch.
FX and Hulu might just reverse that trend with The Weekly, which follows in the footsteps of Michael Barbaro’s popular New York Times podcast, The Daily, in which he interviews fellow Times reporters about their stories. Rather than attempt to convert Barbaro’s dulcet conversational tone to the screen, The Weekly follows journalists as they work through their stories, giving viewers a firsthand look at the reporting process. The show smartly courts the kind of viewer who listens to The Daily, but overhauls its format to work for TV.
CREATORS: Banks Tarver, Jason Stallman, Ken Druckerman, Mat Skene, Sam Dolnick, Stephanie Preiss
‘The Weekly’ follows New York Times journalists as they work through their stories, giving viewers a firsthand look at the reporting process.
This is a savvy bit of branding by the Times, an institution duking it out against the Washington Post to become the newspaper considered the true standard-bearer of truth-telling and democracy in the Trump era. What remains to be seen is if The Weekly can sustain itself long enough to become more than a brand-building exercise.
Of the first four Weekly episodes available to critics, episode 2, “The Myth of the Medallion” works the best. Viewers ride shotgun with veteran reporter Brian Rosenthal as he investigates the disastrous decline of the taxi industry. Rosenthal clearly has a command of New York City politics and uses his considerable skills to walk the audience through the crisis facing cab drivers. While Uber and Lyft take the bottom out of the market, the cost of purchasing a taxi medallion has skyrocketed, leaving many drivers in debt and some contemplating suicide. Rosenthal demonstrates how New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, tax brokers, and lenders have created a crisis that was merely exacerbated by ride-hailing apps.
The third episode, “Baby Constantin,” perhaps best demonstrates the potential of The Weekly. The episode follows immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson as she tracks the story of a six-month-old Romanian baby who was separated from his parents and detained at the U.S. border. This episode puts a human face on a story that can at times feel abstract, secretive, and confusing to many Americans. Even though the story isn’t as streamlined as the “The Myth of the Medallion,” it has moments of intense power.
Truly, there isn’t a weak episode in this first batch. The Weekly is slickly produced and takes pains to walk the viewer through the shoe-leather reporting process with clever visuals and innovative editing. In “Myth of the Medallion,” we watch Rosenthal call lender after lender in an attempt to cultivate sources. The pilot episode, “The Education of T.M. Landry,” shows education reporter Erica Green balancing her coffee and notebook as she rolls through the streets of a small town in Louisiana. In “Collision,” we see how journalists work across national borders and get a glimpse of a harrowing jailhouse interview.
Authentic, well-produced, and informative, The Weekly achieves exactly what the New York Times intended. But the show’s commitment to telling the story from the journalist’s point of view doesn’t always work perfectly. Reporters narrate their own episodes, even if they may not have a natural flair for narration. At times, watching the reporters do their legwork can hurt the narrative momentum. And just as the newspaper that coined the slogan “The truth is more important now than ever” can sometimes come off as self-important, so can its new TV project.
The biggest ding against The Weekly is its Times-ian strain for objectivity in these subjective times. During a harrowing story about a family separation, the reporter reminds viewers that “illegal entry is a criminal offense.” The episode on taxi medallions allows predatory lenders far too much airtime as they try to justify their unjustifiable position. It is certainly worth arguing whether good journalism has to be objective, or if objectivity is even possible. But no one ever said objectivity made for great television.
Overall, The Weekly is a strong effort, but in the competitive docuseries space, it remains to be seen what kind of audience the show can carry. How many people want to watch 30-minute deep dives into news stories they may have already read? How much of an appetite will viewers have for the Times’ neoliberal “objectivity” when the most successful political television shows—The Rachel Maddow Show, Hannity, and The Daily Show—are deeply partisan?
A podcast requires a much smaller audience than a television show in order to be successful. While The Weekly succeeds as a carefully constructed look at how journalism gets made, the show doesn’t always succeed as compelling television. Although there is much to admire about The Weekly, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this won’t be the next enduring cornerstone of the New York Times media empire.
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