David Zurawik

'New Yorker,' 'Circus,' Viceland signal a good shift in TV land

Paul Giamatti as Honore de Balzac, author and debauched coffee addict. The big-body rap artist Action Bronson on tour eating great food and smoking pot in epic quantities. And some of the best backstage reporting on the presidential campaign in any medium.

After years of hearing experts say television is on the way out, it might shock some to know that there is actually more TV than ever. Lots more, and the people, performances and topics listed above are included in some of the best, brightest and most intriguing new shows and cable channels in 2016.


In 2009, there were 211 original scripted series on television. In 2015, the number almost doubled to 405. And there was growth across every platform: broadcast, streaming, basic and pay cable, according to a study done by the cable channel FX.

"Platform" is the key word in this phenomenon. All the players in media, it seems, are trying to find new platforms for their best content — ways to take material that defines their brand and push it into new media where hopefully it will generate new revenue. And there is still no medium that offers the potential for bigger money than TV.


The business model is not a complicated one; it's called survival, especially for those from the world of print, where the mandate for almost a decade has been: Find new life in other media or die.

As a critic who has lived in the legacy world of print most of my career, it is not pleasant to watch longtime colleagues and respected institutions lose their way in these transformational days. But just as there are casualties in every revolution, there are also new and sometimes wonderful arrivals.

"The New Yorker Presents," which debuted Tuesday on Amazon, defines a great print institution trying to gain a toehold in the world of streamed TV known for productions like "House of Cards" and "Transparent."

The magazine itself has certainly seen a decline in its relevance and prestige the past decade. But it's still The New Yorker, and as uneven as it is, Episode 1 has moments of sheer delight and great insight — worthy of the magazine's legacy.

From Dorothy Parker to Woody Allen, humor has been a benchmark of the magazine — particularly humor grounded in a knowledge and love of literature.

Enter Giamatti in "Le Cafe de Balzac," described on screen as a "short film."

"The nineteenth-century French writer supposedly consumed fifty cups of coffee a day," viewers are informed in black writing on a white screen as the film opens. "Based on this information and facts we vaguely remember from his Wikipedia page, here are what his thoughts probably were with each cup …"

"Le Cafe" opens with Giamatti's Balzac awakening in bed to a new day and savoring his first cup of coffee. By cup 29, he is calling himself the "father of European literature and realism." By cup 42, he's certain his heart is going to burst through his rib cage as he races around the garden like a madman.


I laughed out loud eight times. (I counted.) And I cut my consumption of coffee by at least 10 cups for the rest of the day after watching.

And that is not the best of the premiere. The highlight is a short documentary by filmmaker Alex Gibney titled "The Agent," which lays out with crystal clarity, compelling testimony and facts how the CIA had knowledge of two of the 9/11 hijackers and what they were up to in the United States for months prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and kept it from the FBI, which had jurisdiction.

The closing sequence, which includes President George W. Bush six months after 9/11 placing a medal around the neck of then-CIA chief George Tenet, will make your head explode. This is a powerful piece of reporting about how the attacks might have been prevented — information that history needs to know.

There's also some impressive reporting and storytelling in "The Circus," the Showtime series produced in cooperation with Bloomberg Politics and featuring Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, managing editors at Bloomberg and authors of the books "Game Change" and "Double Down," chronicling the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, respectively.

"Game Change" was made into a winning made-for-TV movie by HBO after the book's publication. But "Circus" is almost live: It's the short documentary version of the current campaign told in weekly installments on premium cable in advance of an expected book.

As with the books, the series' appeal lies in going backstage in the campaigns. The message to viewers: This is what you are missing, even if you watch every hour of cable news coverage. That message is instantly established by the cameras and reiterated by almost everything that follows.


The most recent episode opens on primary night in New Hampshire. The cameras pick up GOP candidate Donald Trump during the closing words of his victory address to followers.

Viewers could have seen that on any cable news channel. But then "The Circus" quickly cuts to the airplane carrying the Trump family and retinue as they head to South Carolina that night. No one watching cable saw that.

"How does a businessman beat a Bush, a governor of Ohio, two U.S. senators who are considered stars? How does that happen?" the voice of an off-camera interviewer asks the billionaire reality-TV star as he settles down in the darkened plane.

"You add up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of them, I think I have 13, 14 million people," Trump replies. "Other people [candidates], they have no way of getting the word out unless you're willing to spend a million dollars for a commercial."

Then he raises one hand as if it clutched a smartphone. He holds the other hand as if it were about to touch the imaginary screen.

"With me, all I do is go bing, bing, bing," he says pressing imaginary keys, "and I got my message out."


And there it is: Trump, the ultimate TV candidate, in his own words, explaining how he's moved on to social media and cleverly colonized it with his Twitter attacks.

I was unimpressed with Halperin and Heilemann when they hosted Bloomberg's midterm election coverage in 2014. Like a lot of print journalists doing TV, they seemed unable to forget there was a camera on them.

But that's not the case any more, and it's been a pleasure the last month to follow them on "The Circus" — and not have to wait for their book version of the 2016 election told from the planes, buses, coffee shops, war rooms, ballrooms and hotel suites of the campaigns.

Viewers looking for something radically different from anything they are likely to see elsewhere on mainstream TV are in for a real treat with the Viceland cable channel scheduled to debut Feb. 29. The channel comes from Vice, a global media operation that aims to be the single most important source of news, information and entertainment for millennials.

Start with the rap food show with the title I can't reproduce in The Baltimore Sun, "----, That's Delicious," featuring 32-year-old rapper and former chef Action Bronson and his fellow performers Big Body Bes and Meyhem Lauren.

Viewers follow them on tour and into the restaurants they visit, from high-end Rose's Luxury in Washington to a no-frills barbecue joint in Atlanta.


Under the creative direction of Oscar winner Spike Jonze, Viceland also offers a show that looks at music scenes, a news magazine showcasing immersion journalism, a comedy series, and "Gaycation," which features actress Ellen Page and filmmaker Ian Daniel exploring LGBTQ cultures in cities around the world.

First stop, Japan.

"There is supposed to be an amazing gay district in Tokyo called Ni-chome," Page tells viewers at the start of the show. "The thing that runs alongside that, though: Same-sex marriage is not legal. And something far worse is that there are no anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQ people."

This will be her third time in Japan, but on previous trips she was "severely closeted," Page says.

"So, personally, I'm excited to learn all about this, and I'm excited to share the experience."

With new series like "Gaycation" and channels like Viceland arriving, it's easy to be excited about the future of TV — even after all these years of dinosaur talk.


If you watch

•"The New Yorker Presents" debuted Tuesday on Amazon. Two new episodes will be available every Tuesday through March 15.

•New episodes of "The Circus" air at 8 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. It can be streamed at Showtime On Demand.

•Viceland debuts Feb. 29. Comcast will carry it in Baltimore on channels 876 HD and 116 SD. It will also be carried on DISH (121), DTV (271), AT&T (257) and Verizon (127).