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The Numbing Rise of I.P. TV – The New Yorker

The Numbing Rise of I.P. TV

Julia Garner as Anna Delvey in “Inventing Anna.”

Julia Garner as the socialite scammer Anna Sorokin, a.k.a. Anna Delvey, in the Netflix show “Inventing Anna.”Photograph by Aaron Epstein courtesy Netflix 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—or, actually, don’t. You’ve heard it; having heard it is the point. It’s that story that was all over the news a couple years back, first as a magazine article and then as a podcast, or maybe it was the other way around. Now it’s a TV show, a docuseries—no, a scripted series—no, a docuseries destined to become the basis for a scripted show. Eventually, it will be someone’s job, somewhere, to write the TV recaps. The comedian Jordan Firstman conjured this ceaseless churn in a recent video. Playing “an exec at a streaming service,” he describes how he found “this amazing story,” which is already the subject of “an extremely successful podcast.” His eyes grow wide as he imagines how events that happened in a single day might spawn two TV shows and yet more podcasts. “So if we found one story a day,” Firstman says, “we can have eight hundred and seventy years of content every year.”

The exaggeration here is only slight. Today’s entertainment marketplace is defined by its faith in the limitless potential of preëxisting intellectual property. There are sprawling franchises (Marvel, “Star Wars,” “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter”) that cater to legions of already devoted fans. There are reboots, dark and gritty or comic and winking, of properties that have barely had time to recede into nostalgia. (“Gossip Girl” already, “Scrubs” imminently.) There are sequels; there are spinoffs; there are live-action retellings; there are brand extensions that verge on the mystifyingly abstract. Greta Gerwig is slated to direct a Barbie movie whose IMDb summary read, for a time, “Barbie lives in Barbie Land and then a story happens.” This fall, the creator of DeuxMoi, an Instagram account devoted to the world’s least scandalous gossip, will publish a novel about running an Instagram gossip account, which HBO Max has already optioned.

A recent crop of based-on-a-true-story streaming series has arrived onscreen after cycling through various combinations of print, documentary, and podcast. Among them are “Joe vs. Carole,” a Peacock series drawn from a Wondery podcast about the same larger-than-life characters captured in Netflix’s hit “Tiger King,” who were also featured in two earlier magazine stories; “Inventing Anna,” a Netflix series about the socialite scammer Anna Sorokin (a.k.a. Anna Delvey), based on a New York magazine story that chronicled events which also spawned a Vanity Fair personal essay and a best-selling memoir; and “The Dropout,” a Hulu series about the rise and fall of the Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes, spun off of an ABC News podcast that drew on the same material as an HBO documentary and the best-selling book “Bad Blood.” Compared with, say, “Star Wars,” these ripped-from-the-headlines juggernauts are franchises only on a modest scale. Yet the very narrowness of such cases is what makes them striking. This is not a matter of reinventing a beloved character or expanding a so-called cinematic universe. This is a matter of a specific story, told and retold, for an audience presumed to have a toddler-like eagerness to hear the same story again, again. Writing in The Baffler, in January, 2020, the journalist James Pogue worried about the effects of Hollywood’s I.P.-ravenous era on magazine journalism. A dwindling field of publications with dwindling budgets had made the prospect of selling an option on a story one of journalism’s rare paths to financial stability. With such powerful incentives, Pogue feared that analytical rigor, literary merit, and political accountability would get lost in the endless quest for swashbuckling yarns. But what about the culture that emerges from the I.P. pipeline’s other end?

Two streaming-saturated years later, one result would seem to be a lot of fancy true crime. Crime is, after all, a reliable source of the conflict and suspense necessary for a studio executive to envision a nonfiction narrative onscreen. But these adaptations aren’t procedurals or Lifetime reënactments. They have movie stars; they have witty music cues; they have exceptional wigs. They have the trappings of prestige TV, if rarely the ambition—and, indeed, it’s hard to see how they could. The frisson of golden-age TV in the era of “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” came, at least in part, from getting something you did not expect. The mandate of I.P. TV, meanwhile, is getting exactly what you expect, because you’ve got it before. “Law and Order” has been ripping from the headlines since time immemorial; now, though, there exists an audience and critical ecosystem inclined to approach such productions with an eye for themes, relevance, and other markers of quality. I.P. TV can deliver these markers—it will scramble a time line, cast a beloved character actor, offer a potted disquisition on the nature of “truth”— but ultimately it will leave the audience with little impression beyond “Wow, pretty crazy.” (It is crazy because it is true.)

A dead wife—the ultimate true-crime fodder—is the crux of HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” a scripted series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette that is based on an award-winning documentary, and which aired its finale on June 9th. The murder case that it concerns has become a staple of true-crime podcasts, already so well known that its fan theories inspire merch. Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the first installments of “The Staircase” documentary series appeared in 2004, and followed the 2003 trial of the North Carolina author and newspaper columnist Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife and whose case unfolded in a series of startling plot twists. The documentary offers an examination of the American justice system, but it’s also a portrait, and Peterson is a man with the combined self-regard and self-pity to let a film crew sit in on his criminal defense. His bearing onscreen makes this uneasy combination palpable—as much as the increasingly outlandish murder mystery, it’s what gives the documentary its pull. Colin Firth’s Peterson is respectable but slightly redundant. Why bother playing someone who already played himself so well?

Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, an author who was accused of killing his wife, in the HBO Max series “The Staircase.” Photograph courtesy HBO

On the most basic level, a good character for a journalist or documentarian is somebody who is willing to talk. Joe Exotic was a tirelessly self-mythologizing eccentric and local-news star when he captured the attention of the filmmakers behind “Tiger King.” His eagerness to speak and theirs to listen created a vortex of exhibitionism and voyeurism that sucked in millions of viewers in the pandemic’s early weeks. But, as a subject makes its way from fact to light fictionalization, the value of a willing source shifts. Elizabeth Holmes did not participate in “The Dropout,” the 2019 ABC News podcast that chronicled her downfall. And so, although that project provided the forensics of the Theranos business, the woman at the center of its reporting—present only through deposition tapes and previous interviews—remained mostly a void. This provided a useful opening for the filmmakers of a scripted Hulu adaptation, also called “The Dropout.” Amanda Seyfried, as Holmes, ventures into an imagined inner life, inaccessible to any journalist, to make sense of the Theranos C.E.O.’s mesmerizingly weird affect. Holmes’s famous Muppet baritone becomes a facet of her effortful social clumsiness. “This is an inspiring step forward,” Seyfried’s Holmes repeats miserably, alone, after experiencing a professional setback.

In contrast to this deft approach to character and medium, there is “Inventing Anna,” a Netflix series adapted from an article in New York magazine. (In the interest of disclosure, I was working at New York when it ran.) That story, like the original “Dropout” podcast, contained relatively little of its central character—in this case, the would-be socialite Anna Sorokin. It succeeded as a portrait by capturing Sorokin in glimpses, while mapping out the slice of society that she hoodwinked. One of the insights of the piece was that Sorokin herself was in many ways unremarkable—not especially beautiful, not especially charismatic, not especially pleasant to be around. Perversely, for a con artist, these qualities seem to have worked in her favor. From the right angle, and to the people who would know best, she looked like somebody too rich to care. But charmless and unprepossessing won’t cut it on TV: there, Sorokin becomes a brash antiheroine who looks like a beautiful TV star, because she’s played by Julia Garner, a beautiful TV star. Instead of developing the mysteries left by its source material, the series forecloses on them.

Among all these stories, it’s worth noting the preponderance of subjects intent on selling some version of themselves. Joe Exotic was filming homegrown reality shows before Netflix came knocking. Michael Peterson ran an underdog campaign for Durham mayor. Elizabeth Holmes made herself the face of her company, perhaps most memorably in Theranos ads filmed by Errol Morris. Anna Sorokin cultivated an Instagram presence befitting the kind of figure who could name her business (“the Anna Delvey Foundation”) after herself. All these efforts go some way toward explaining how they wound up as fodder for journalists and documentarians in the first place: they were literally asking for the attention. And, while shows like these—along with productions such as the duelling Fyre Festival documentaries of 2019, or the avalanche of documentaries about the sex-trafficking cult NXIVM in 2020—have sometimes been classified as scam stories, they can also be understood as stories of salesmanship. Maybe a general hunger exists for tales of personal branding and mythmaking self-promotion (because of the much lamented façade of performance that social media elicits, because of the ongoing obligation to market oneself in a gig economy, et cetera), but I suspect this particular drama exerts a stronger hold on media and entertainment professionals than it does on anyone else. It is not an uninteresting kind of story, necessarily, but it does seem overrepresented. There is something bleakly recursive in watching as these stories are sold, and sold, and sold again.

Amanda Seyfried as the Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes, in Hulu’s “The Dropout.”Photograph by Beth Dubber courtesy Hulu

The sweatiness of selling seems to infect the form of the scripted adaptations themselves. Both “Inventing Anna” and HBO Max’s “The Staircase” take as a framing device the production of their source material. “Inventing Anna” follows a fictionalized journalist as she overcomes obstacles to report on Sorokin; “The Staircase” dramatizes the involvement of the documentary crew. Both use the story-behind-the-story approach as a sales pitch—to make the case that the source material is interesting, important, worthy of an audience’s attention. Watching “Inventing Anna,” the viewer is obliged to sit through a lot of proclamations in the vein of “My piece is about the swindle that is the American Dream in the twenty-first century!” A meta approach is not without potential complications—the original “Staircase” filmmakers have said they feel betrayed and misrepresented by the HBO Max show (which plays up an eventual relationship between Peterson and one of the film’s editors). But it does provide a convenient way for these shows to continually remind viewers that what they’re watching is based on unbelievable real events rather than implausible fake ones.

The very qualities that make a story seem “like a movie” (or like a Netflix original limited series) can undermine it once it’s actually onscreen. Reality, unfortunately, can be a touch obvious. This problem is most blatant in such a production as “Joe vs. Carole,” which inevitably calls to mind the Netflix hit “Tiger King.” Whereas the docuseries simply wallowed in its wealth of over-the-top material, “Joe Vs. Carole,” which stars John Cameron Mitchell and Kate McKinnon, seems anxious to let no colorful detail go unemphasized. (Carole Baskin, the proprietor of Big Cat Rescue, has an ironic cat allergy that’s underscored with a big sneeze minutes into Episode 1.) Even in productions that aspire to greater subtlety, a grinding literalism threatens—a dutiful hitting of marks. Facts can come to feel like load-bearing elements of a rickety edifice. The possibility that a subject might be particularly suited to a particular form gets lost in the drive to adapt. So, too, does the possibility that most stories will not find their truest expression as eight to ten hours of TV.

Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue, in the hit Netflix documentary “Tiger King.”Photograph courtesy Netflix

Once, Hollywood mined the tabloids to polish the occasional, exceptionally scandalous gem. The 1990 movie “Reversal of Fortune” won Jeremy Irons an Academy Award for his performance as Claus von Bülow, a Danish-born New York socialite accused of trying to murder his heiress wife, after a 1980 incident that put his wife, Sunny, in an irreversible coma and von Bülow on magazine covers and TV. Dominick Dunne’s knowing chronicle of the saga appeared in Vanity Fair, alongside photographs by Helmut Newton. (The movie itself is based on a memoir by Alan Dershowitz, who oversaw von Bülow’s successful appeal.) It took a decade for the case to go from the headlines to the big screen, a pace that now seems stately. In retrospect, Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” from 2013, looks like a sign of the growing speed and appetite of the content cycle: from tabloid splash to Nancy Jo Sales’s glossy Vanity Fair narrative to feature film in just under five years, with an E! reality series from the Bling Ring member and Vanity Fair source Alexis Haines, née Neiers, along the way.

The rise of streaming created an apparently bottomless vessel for “content,” that great undifferentiated commodity. A decade has passed since Netflix first offered original programming, and in that time a new realm of entertainment has taken shape; from Prime Video and Hulu to legacy offshoots like Peacock and HBO Max to budget services like Tubi and Roku, the promise of ever more platforms and more shows has seemed limitless. Then, in Netflix’s report on first-quarter earnings in 2022, the company announced that it had lost subscribers for the first time in more than ten years. The company’s share value dropped thirty-five per cent, for a loss of fifty billion dollars in market cap. (Among the hundred and fifty employees subsequently laid off were staff from Tudum, an in-house entertainment coverage site devoted to content about Netflix’s content.) Netflix claimed a range of causes—password-sharing, competition, the decision to shutter operations in Russia—but it was tempting to wonder if a more general contraction lay at hand. Perhaps there was some bottom, some limit, to the content pit after all. And, if so, perhaps there will be less incentive to wring weeks of entertainment from a given viral narrative.

I thought about this while watching “Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s unclassifiable FX show, which returned this spring after a four-year hiatus. The third season’s first episode, a self-contained dream sequence, follows a boy named Loquareeous who is taken from his home, forced into servitude, and narrowly escapes death—a story whose outline suggested a 2018 crime that was the subject of a podcast from Glamour and HowStuffWorks. It was easy to see how those events (and the podcast) might have been fodder for yet more plodding I.P. TV. In Glover’s hands, though, free from the constraints of a literal adaptation, they became something stranger and more surprising: thirty-seven minutes of TV that are impossible to imagine in any other form. Awash in content, filmmakers and TV auteurs would be foolish to let the raw material of real life go to waste. But they’d also be foolish to ignore the power of transformation. ♦

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