Do you know what diaeresis marks are? Who would have a thought a publication that continues the archaic written tradition of adding dots over the second vowel in words with repeating vowels (e.g. preëminent) would partner with Amazon Studios to produce a pilot in the 21st century? The New Yorker is no stranger to the big screen with short stories originally published there having been adapted into acclaimed films from Meet Me in St. Louis to Adaptation, but The New Yorker Presents marks the magazine’s first foray into television. Still The New Yorker shines through every sleek transition, trademark jazz score and subtle allusion to the City. The unified branding indicates an adherence to what has made the publication America’s most award-winning magazine instead of an attempt to transform for a modern audience.
Despite the pilot’s throughline elements, the uneven pacing from four minute sketch to eight minute interview interspersed with 30 second long editorial cartoons registers as jarring even on the more flexible streaming video on demand (SVOD) service. Five disparate pieces ranging from poetry to interview individually hold their own during a digestible 30 minutes, but the more fractured magazine format feels mismatched overall on the traditionally linear mode of television. Amazon’s entrance into original content in 2013 is a testament to how the unexpected should be expected in the wave of SVOD where material as patiently cerebral as The New Yorker Presents gets produced in the same pilot cycle as a cop show.
Unlike the average network show, The New Yorker Presents offers us informative entertainment that still thinks the “informative” part of that phrase carries the most weight. The first sketch with Alan Cumming as an unflappable God who calmly coaches his prophet to warn against the end of days comes off as bland. It does well playing to the cartoonish with an exaggerated score highlighting the prophet’s misguided attempts at converting people followed by lazy jazz when Gods hand over his next ill-fated instructions, but the most it all elicits is a chortle.
The program really starts gaining traction during the conversation with seminal performance artist Marina Abromavić that relates the intensity of her recent work with consistently thoughtful camera work that finds the look or movement at the heart of the scene and lingers. Footage from Abramović’s recent exhibitions “The Artist is Present” and “Generator” is interspersed with material from the artist’s earlier work that shows among other things the artist cutting a star into her stomach as a discourse on engaging with pain. The interviewer, Ariel Levy, skillfully guides the conversation with Abramović who has been doing 30 years of interviews onto a previous quote by the artist relating sexual energy to artistic inspiration, obliquely addressing the artist’s motives on what could be considered by viewers overly sexualized performances. Levy elicits the artist’s views on feminism with the delicacy of any New Yorker print review. In fact similarities in tone, content and presentation to the magazine frequently draw comparisons to print articles centered around the traditional understanding of “culture” or long reads on American environmental concerns.
Jonathon Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Rachel Getting Married) directs that ‘long read’ as a doc on an American ecosystem damaged by pesticides. The interweaving of the lead scientist’s uncommon upbringing in South Carolina bolsters the narrative about frogs poisoned with pesticide runoff by adding another layer of power imbalance between a big corporation and the little guy. The piece ends with the scientist barefoot on a tranquil riverbank, albeit one filled with reproductively contaminated wildlife, reading a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden about the music made by bullfrogs. That strong image ties together the pleasantly meandering human interest story, showcasing one thing a magazine can’t do – have some of America’s finest prose read aloud to fauna chirping and rustling by a river. That piece leads straight into a haunting poem read aloud by Andrew Garfield, which ends the show on a dark note. Personally I find this visual translation of the magazine intriguing with great prospects for future well-produced, insightful material dovetailed with the magazine. The New Yorker Presents isn’t really widening its target audience, but for a publication turning 90 this year and still flourishing, perhaps simply for SVOD is compelling enough.