The Jan. 6 hearings: Sizzling summer TV in the most surprising of places
One thing I know, and know well, is good TV. In a not so long ago era, summer TV meant reruns, stale TV until Fall Season premieres. Those days are gone and summer 2022 means endless promotion of breakout hits like “Stranger Things,” “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” “Grey” and the surprise hit — the Jan. 6 hearings. Yes, the biggest summer blockbuster of them all comes from the most unlikeliest of places.
This Beltway drama draws historical comparisons to other Congressional hearings on Watergate and Iran-Contra But this season’s D.C. docudrama crushes its predecessors with slick production, an accelerated timeline and masterful set pieces of episodic storytelling. James Poniewozik, The New York Times’s chief television critic, reminded us that summer TV audiences want the escapism of “Stranger Things,” not the somber reality of investigating a threat to democracy. But this installment of public affairs programming created intensely interesting TV that continues playing out in real time, as each new witness comes forward.
Give credit where credit is due. James Goldston, the TV veteran who signaled the shift to true crime when he retooled “Nightline,” redefining “must-see TV” for the TikTok and Twitter era. This new political showrunner took the classic government reality show format and turned it on its head.
Breaking through by breaking bad, Goldston, the former president of ABC News, defied Beltway convention, rejected C-SPAN production values and hooked Americans on classic storytelling. Compelling characters, gripping arcs, complete with drama, comedy, suspense and mystery, and simple settings gave us a reason to appreciate appointment TV again in the form of a blockbuster summer miniseries.
Goldston directed his team to ax the endless Q&A livestream, cut tightly edited shorts and produce clips that work as instant replays for social media, like Sen. Josh Hawley’s mad dash and former Attorney General William Barr saying “bullshit” on repeat. Forget syndication, these reruns will make history, and Goldston’s team needs a nod for both the day and nighttime Emmy.
Episode One’s opening salvo put viewers at the Capitol with British documentary filmmaker Nick Quested’s never-before-seen footage of protesters taking their first steps to storm the building. The following installments focus in “24”-like fashion on one aspect of that day — pressuring state officials, whipping the assembled protesters into a frenzy, identifying right-wing conspirators, establishing White House staffers’ objections — while introducing a steady cadence of heroes and villains direct from central casting to connect the dots. The midseason cliffhanger places viewers where it mattered most, inside the White House, to complete the narrative for the first season.
Tried and true tropes elevate the story. From surprise witness Cassidy Hutchinson, initially cast as a stereotypical political ingenue, shreds expectations and delivers an opening for former White House counsel Pat Cipollone to testify to Stephen Ayers, the extremist antihero who realizes his mistake and seeks redemption.
The traditional Congressional hearing format is not made for primetime, but this presentation proves how government reality TV can be. With any luck, the Jan. 6 hearings will inspire more politicians to produce great moments over soundbites.
Cover photo by Shawn Thew/AFP via Getty