Although the term “news magazine” has been used on television for decades, those primetime hours don’t really approximate magazines, and tend to contain less and less news. Enter “The New Yorker Presents,” an Amazon series that replicates elements of the magazine. Yet, despite the involvement of documentary ace Alex Gibney, the effort comes across as a trifle dull — like “CBS Sunday Morning” on sleeping pills, or an NPR morning show without any coffee. For Conde Nast, the promotional platform makes tons of sense. But based on a sampling, this show seems unlikely to be the talk of the town.
Clearly, a lot of attention has been put into translating the flavor of the magazine to television, down to specific signature elements. That includes using cartoons (animated, to the extent that we see them being drawn) as interstitial pieces; incorporating short scripted films featuring the likes of Paul Giamatti; and having writers read their essays, in addition to longer, documentary-style treatment of featured articles. Even fact-checkers get their fleeting moment in the sun.
Most of those pieces, however, at least in the three episodes previewed, fall under the heading of soft human-interest stories, from kids participating in rodeo to a gay Mexican wrestler. Perhaps that’s why the most arresting segment is one produced by Gibney, which delves into counter-terrorism efforts.
Simply put, there’s just not much sense of urgency in, or compelling need for, “The New Yorker Presents,” which will offer two new installments each Tuesday. And while its inclusion on a premium service like Amazon spares the producers from the pressure to reach a vast audience beyond the upscale demo to which the magazine caters, even those who enjoy leafing through a hard copy of its pages might find themselves feeling a trifle bored trying to wade through the video version.
From a broader perspective, Conde Nast certainly deserves credit, given the challenges facing publishing, for seeking creative ways to enhance, promote and cash in on its storied titles, including the more organic “Vanity Fair Confidential” for Investigation Discovery. Not surprisingly, other outlets wrestling with the future of print — such as Rolling Stone, which is working on a pilot deal with Showtime — are exploring similar avenues.
In this case, though, those corporate benefits don’t necessarily align with the needs of viewers. Because like so many efforts to turn books into movies, in the attempt to bring the spirit of the New Yorker to the screen, something got lost in translation.