Amazon Prime Video UK TV review: The New Yorker Presents
James R | On 16, Feb 2016
Ask anyone on the streets of the UK and the number of people who say they read The New Yorker is going to be minimal at best. Amazon’s decision to turn the publication into video form, then, is a bizarre one for us Brits across the pond.
For Conde Nast, the giant publishers of the magazine, it’s a logical step: in an age where The Independent has just called time on its printing presses, publications need to find new ways to go digital and, crucially, new ways to generate revenue. What they and Amazon have come up with is a sort of magazine show, which takes previously written content as a springboard for short films, be they documentaries, poetry recitals, sketches or fiction. Don’t expect investigative journalism or Saturday Night Live skits here: the tone is closer to soft human interest. Think The One Show, but more sophisticated.
It’s hard for such a programme to come across as little more than a hodgepodge of random items – and some of the ingredients in that stew are, perhaps inevitably, more successful than others. Across four episodes made available for preview, a documentary by Jonathan Demme about a biologist (based on an article) captures a curious scientific tale within a very brief runtime, while a poem read by Andrew Garfield with genuine conviction leaves its mark (as well as you wanting more). The bookmarking of chapters with cartoons by Emily Flake and others, though, prove fascinating as pieces of time-lapse footage, but are not particularly funny and, due to the restraints of the format, are unable to be topical.
A behind-the-scenes look at the cartoonists themselves is more successful, even if the insight into the publication smacks of advert more than entertainment. In fact, the overall documentary work is some of the best stuff on display, with a Marina Abramovic interview proving particularly interesting, not least because you see people experiencing her art as well as her talking about it. The standout pieces, though, are a comic interlude (directed by Arrested Development’s Troy Miller) starring Alan Cumming as God, who orders a crazy man to shout in supermarkets about the end of the world, and a film about a woman who wakes up next to Roy Spivey on an airplane. The latter, based on a short story by Miranda July, is a heartbreaking, charming little gem, full of longing, the thrill of romantic connection and, erm, warm nuts. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine going down well at festivals and being nominated for awards.
To find that, though, you’ll have to start the relevant episode of The New Yorker Presents, pause the video at the contents list that appears at the start of each instalment and then fast forward to the correct timestamp. While the overall effect is meant to be a mini-variety show, it seems bizarre, in an on-demand age (and on an on-demand service), to have something served to you in such a prescribed fashion. When a menu appears, your immediate instinct is to click on the thing you want to watch – something that Amazon Prime Video doesn’t support. Should they create a separate interface with Conde Nast for the consumption of The New Yorker Presents, so that short videos can be navigated to by viewers? In which case, would that be an on-demand TV show or simply a website? And what, incidentally, does a TV version of a magazine say about how much we value the written word?
This is the kind of grey area that such a collaboration puts us in – one that’s interesting and different but, as The Rolling Stone signs with Showtime to make a series of its own, one that needs to be developed more fully, if it’s to become both a satisfying TV show and a viable way for print publications to exist digitally, especially alongside their existing websites. If this were a dedicated video portal on The New Yorker’s site, it would be sponsored by Amazon. As it is, it’s an experiment on Amazon’s site sponsored by The New Yorker. That brand team-up, though, has an undeniable clout: together, they can achieve quality through sheer force of talent. The series has Alex Gibney’s name behind it as an Executive Producer, while people such as Hoop Dreams’ Steve James and Paul Giamatti also feature in the opening episodes.
The uneven final product winds up as odd as it is intriguing, but that hard-to-pin-down nature (and niche appeal in the UK) is partly what makes it such a significant entry in Amazon’s original line-up: after a sci-fi, a family drama, a slew of kids’ shows and even a remake of a thriller, The New Yorker Presents is a glimpse of how diverse the VOD service’s output can be. With this docuseries, the site positions itself not just as a streaming platform, but as a rounded TV station in its own right. There’s an interesting New Yorker article in there somewhere.
The New Yorker Presents is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Two new episodes are added to the site every Tuesday.