Say this for “The Hunt for the Trump Tapes,” Tom Arnold’s new half-hour series in which the actor undertakes a largely farcical hunt for incriminating material about the president — it’s a show of its moment. The series sits at the intersection of two trends: The outlandishness of the ongoing political scene allowing just about anything to seem believable, and the tendency of this era to resurrect just about any pop-cultural figure who’d seemed better left in a previous era.
But being well-positioned to document and to succeed in an era of crass, noisy perniciousness — an era in which vastly more heat than light is generated by whatever’s left of a national discourse — is hardly a compliment, unless it’s bolstered by the sort of vision and artfulness this show lacks. Arnold’s show is an unpleasant wade through widely-known and speculated-about Trump ephemera, adding little in its first two episodes but the re-emergence of a personality whose frantic need to be in front of the camera makes for painful viewing.
For this series, Arnold has taken on a persona that will be familiar to viewers of cable news or heavy users of social media: He’s a conspiracist who’s nebulously half-informed, speaking with brazen directness about anecdotes he hazily, sort of remembers. “There’s supposedly salacious outtakes on ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Miss Universe’ contest,” he says in an opening bit of voice-over that carries over to episode 2. “There’s this Russian pee-pee tape.”
The series never deals in a serious way with the fact that rumors of these tapes — including “this Russian pee-pee tape” — have hardly dented Trump’s popularity among his base. Neither, ultimately, did a very real and widely circulated tape on which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women. This show indulges in a common delusion, that restating known facts about Trump’s personality more loudly will somehow cause them to sink in, as though he weren’t elected with the public having a full understanding of who he was. Its focus is also pointedly turned away from policy; Trump’s badness is something beyond ideology, here, which means there’s little for the viewer to grab onto beyond admittedly disgusting quotes.
But does Arnold really even want to bring down the president, or just to use his omnipresence as grist for a TV show? Much of the series is dedicated to resurfacing stories that, while certainly outrageous, are, sadly, no longer remarkable — and performing outrage about them while relishing their entertainment value. An anti-Trump researcher who’s documented his many interviews in the press raises uncouth statements Trump has made about Kim Kardashian and Charlize Theron. How much of this is about bringing the public to greater awareness of Trump’s already widely-known attitudes, and how much is about getting to laugh together at the things the president has said?
The greatest dirt that’s dished in the series’s early going is former “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Penn Jillette saying that, on set, he got “that hot feeling you get of your face flushing when someone has done something tremendously inappropriate.” Jillette cites “homophobic, racist, misogynist things,” without giving specifics; but instead of asking a follow-up question, Arnold grins and says, “Oh my gosh.” Actually finding out what’s inside the notional Trump tapes, or even if they exist, is less important for the show than taking nourishment from an atmosphere of scandal. Other insiders whom Arnold reached for comment ended up backing out before they could be interviewed on tape, something that could mean everything, or nothing. Does it really matter? What any real revelation of years-old prejudiced language would mean for the president who survived the “Access Hollywood” scandal is never dealt with; for Arnold, the mere broaching of potential scandal is enough for a half-hour’s entertainment. The show is fueled, parasitically, by the times in which we live, even as it has little to say about them beyond that they are unbelievable and crazy.
In an odd way, Arnold is once again linked to his ex-wife Roseanne Barr, this time as her polar opposite in fame-seeking. Roseanne’s short-lived return to TV was characterized by a somewhat opportunistic embrace of Trumpism, an inarticulately explained attempt to surf the wave of history towards renewed fame. If Barr strove to make headlines as the president’s friend, Arnold’s doing so as his nemesis, guided by no coherent ideology or insight. But Barr rose to the president’s attention in part because of her stratospheric ratings success and her blue-moon quality. For all the incoherence of her philosophy and for all the real-world prejudices that cost her her starring role, she was for a time doing something meaningfully different from just about every sitcom star out there, and was rewarded with attention.
Arnold brags that he’s a “professional Trump annoyer,” but will a show in which old stories get rehashed even rise to the president’s attention? This show is indistinguishable from frenzied social-media conversation, and bolstered by about as much successful reporting and meaningful understanding as exists online, too. Which makes it so of its time that it becomes yet more background noise: We’ve seen Arnold’s act, a plate-spinning bit of seizing on minor controversy in order to amuse and entertain while avoiding the tough questions, before. Its more skillful practitioners, after all, include the president.
Reality series (eight episodes, two watched for review). Premieres Tuesday, Sept. 18., 10:30 p.m., Viceland.
Executive Producers: Tom Arnold, Jonathan Karsh, Nomi Ernst Leidner, Jeff Sammon.