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The podcast fails as a TV show and as political analysis.
Spoiler: the pod will not save America.
Over the last two years, Pod Save America—a podcast hosted by Obama administration veterans Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Dan Pfeiffer—has gained massive popularity nationwide. PSA has become such a prominent part of the #resistance, the men of the podcast have been able to build a fledgling empire called Crooked Media.
While Pod Save America’s hosts would say that they offer trenchant political analysis coupled with lighthearted jokes tailor-made for these troubled times, in reality, they offer false comfort. In terms of analysis, their insider view of politics clearly proves a hindrance. They tend to toe the Democratic party line, offering little insight that is politically imaginative or intellectually interesting.
And frankly, since 2016, they have been wrong a lot.
As a television show, Pod Save America doesn’t work. HBO has offered them four election special episodes during the run-up to the midterms, and it is hard to imagine them trying this experiment again. While HBO and other streaming services may think that podcasts are transferable to television, the evidence indicates otherwise. Radio and TV are two different things, and any television efforts not guided by entertainment industry veterans like Marc Maron (WTF with Marc Maron) or Jessica Williams (Two Dope Queens) seem destined to fall flat.
Cringeworthy jokes and awkward cadences aside, Pod Save America doesn’t just fail as a TV show; it doesn’t work well as political analysis either. As is the case with their podcast and in their Crooked Media articles, the Pod Save America midterm specials start from a position that Democrats are correct and that if Republicans didn’t cheat, Democrats would always win. Early in the show, one of the hosts remarks, “You know what’s uncivil? Taking away healthcare for people with pre-existing conditions to fund a tax cut for billionaires.” Lovett, the comic relief of the pod, adds, “If being hypocritical was politically costly, Democrats would control something.” Again and again they remind us, “Our job is to get back to the issues,” the implication being that if we get back to the issues, Democrats win.
The hosts never consider that Democrats may not actually be perfect on the issues. They rarely allow themselves to venture outside of the confines of D.C. orthodoxy around “what works” and imagine a system that works better. For many Americans, better isn’t good enough, and the reality is that many people don’t vote because they don’t see a meaningful difference between the two parties. If a voter is making only $7 an hour, if they have thousands of dollars of healthcare debt and student loans, if their sexual harassment lawsuit is resolved through corporate arbitration, can you blame them?
In their unerring support of the Democratic Party line, Pod Save America’s hosts have already performed several contortions on the issues to stay relevant throughout their brief existence. In the premiere episode of their show, they do a segment mocking President Donald Trump’s op-ed against Medicare for All. What they don’t mention is that Favreau sat on the board of United States of Care, a bipartisan group designed as a market-based alternative to Medicare for All earlier this year. They also omit the fact that they have been vocal opponents of single-payer healthcare until relatively recently, criticizing it on their former podcast Keepin’ It 1600 and on early episodes of PSA.
The same is true of candidates. PSA did not support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez until after she won her primary, and has been generally muted or even critical of similar progressive and leftist candidates. Once Ocasio-Cortez won, however, the hosts were quick to endear themselves to her by inviting her on the show. Meanwhile, they have repeatedly backed losing centrist candidates like Jon Ossoff.
In recent months, Pod Save America’s hosts have grown more amenable to progressive positions and candidates. But if pundits are to be judged on their assessment of the political landscape, we ought to question just how often these hosts can be wrong before they lose credibility, or at least our attention.
It’s fitting that Pod Save America has focused on its “Vote Save America” initiative in the run-up to the midterms. Rather than hanging their hat on a particular set of issues that they could once again be wrong about, they’ve hedged their bets so their position in media will not be compromised by the outcome of the midterms. By launching a J.Crew-ified version of “Rock the Vote,” they have taken a position that nearly everyone can agree on, inoculating themselves from criticism.
For the election specials, the hosts of PSA have evaded the obvious criticism that they are four white men lecturing America on politics by adding Crooked Media’s Erin Gloria Ryan to the mix. This puts the gender composition of their group (four men, one woman) in line with another popular humorous political podcast, Chapo Trap House. Chapo is considered by many to be the bizarro mirror image of Pod Save America, and the hosts of Chapo love playing the “dirtbag left” heel to PSA’s polished liberalism.
Whereas Pod Save America puts its faith in institutions and processes to “save America,” Chapo argues that the Trump administration and current political moment are a result of the oligarchic, white supremacist realities of American life, and any meaningful change in this country will be radical. Even if you disagree with Chapo, you know where they stand, and they stand for something different than the status quo. They also hold generally consistent positions and readily admit when they are wrong.
Chapo is by no means the only podcast to offer a more transformative vision of American political life than PSA. Season of the Bitch, Trillbilly Workers Party, Street Fight Radio, Doomed with Matt Binder, Delete Your Account, and Struggle Session are all more interesting and radical political podcasts that lack the exposure that comes from being hosted by former Obama staffers.
Perhaps the hosts of Pod Save America have finally come around to progressive positions, but they still took the wrong path to get there. That’s fine as far as teaming up to win the midterm elections, but it doesn’t mean they deserve an audience when there are plenty of better options in the iTunes store—and it definitely doesn’t mean they should have a TV show.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.