Aziz Ansari, Chris Hardwick’s Reemergence Complicate the #MeToo Conversation

Chris Hardwick Aziz Ansari MeToo Comeback
Hardwick: Shutterstock/Ansari: Courtesy of Netflix

Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix stand-up special “Right Now” marks the comedian’s return to the spotlight more than a year after being publicly accused of sexual impropriety, an allegation that has proved to be divisive, fueling discussions about what is considered consent and what constitutes sexual assault. His isn’t the only redemptive arc forming at the moment; Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick is returning to San Diego Comic-Con this week as a panel moderator for AMC’s “The Walking Dead” franchise after stepping down last year in the wake of an ex-girlfriend’s abuse allegations.

Amid a heated, ongoing public dialogue about sexual misconduct — one that involves a news cycle flooded with headlines about powerful men like R. Kelly, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein being brought to task for alleged egregious sex- abuse offenses — some entertainers accused in the #MeToo era have reestablished their careers, having maintained bonds with the networks and studios with which they had long-standing relationships.

Regardless of guilt, timing a comeback is a deliberate process.

“It depends what they did; it depends what they were accused of doing … and what their threshold of pain is in terms of coverage,” says Michael Sitrick, founder and CEO of crisis PR firm Sitrick and Co., which at one point represented Weinstein after the producer began facing accusations of sexual abuse. “There needs to be a plan; there needs to be a statement. You need to assume the worst and then have a plan for the worst and say, ‘This is what might happen.’”

Neither AMC nor Netflix has received much blowback for its decision. Hardwick’s forced hiatus was brief; AMC ran an internal investigation before reinstating him as host of “Talking Dead.” Ansari lay low after now-shuttered Babe.net ran a story in January 2018 in which an unnamed woman alleged that he engaged in sexually aggressive behavior with her while on a date. He reemerged with the Netflix special.

That neither Ansari nor Hardwick’s alleged offenses appeared to rise to the level of criminal wrongdoing and that no other accusers stepped forward may have played a role in their comebacks. Netflix originals chief Cindy Holland said a year ago at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour that the company “certainly would be happy to make another season of ‘Master of None’ with Aziz.”

There’s no news yet on whether a third season is happening; it’s unclear whether the stand-up special is meant to be a test of viewers’ appetite for the comedian.

Social media reaction has been mixed, as viewers mull Ansari’s onstage comments that he “felt terrible that this person felt this way” and hoped he’d become a better person. There is perhaps the worry that even if his alleged actions were not on the scale of others’, allowing him to make a return is tantamount to condoning all bad behavior or undermining allegations that deserve serious attention.

“I don’t think we publicly, or even much through the #MeToo movement, have really come to terms with how we want to deal with this as a spectrum rather than a black-or-white issue,” says Lorraine Bayard de Volo, chair of women and gender studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

There’s precedent for media brands staying in business with accused talent without taking too much flak. CBS renewed “Bull” for a fourth season despite Michael Weatherly facing sexual harassment claims from co-star Eliza Dushku; ABC and iHeartMedia kept Ryan Seacrest on the air after his former stylist accused him of misconduct while at E!; National Geographic Channel moved forward with shows hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson after two women alleged he behaved inappropriately.

As in the cases of Ansari and Hardwick, most of these accusations were standalone instances that weren’t pursued in criminal court. CBS, E! and NatGeo all conducted inquiries, concluding that cutting ties wasn’t necessary.

What are companies supposed to do with such talent? Think about whether a private citizen accused of misconduct, who was not tried criminally, should be discouraged from reentering the workforce, says one legal scholar.

“It just so happens that these men’s jobs are in the entertainment industry,” says Aya Gruber, law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. “I think we can all agree that even a criminal conviction means that you shouldn’t be unemployed for life.”

Still, being a celebrity is different from most jobs; it’s a coveted one that offers wealth, popularity and a platform. Studios and networks don’t appear to be mandating that their talent have spotless records, but for the price of pop culture influence, many viewers are.