Here’s the truth – it is immensely difficult to get the attention of most Americans for anything other than a new season of Stranger Things on Netflix. The important part of that assertion is “most Americans” because the very idea of a truly national moment in the news or entertainment narrative is redundant. There is no national narrative in a country so polarized politically and where so many news outlets disagree on the meaning of events, and social-media platforms offer their own bamboozlement.
The opening session of the hearings held by the “Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol” had some startling revelations but as a TV event meant to capture a mass audience, it felt less than momentous. It was hard to believe that in terms of presentation, a former ABC News president was hired to produce it. The format was familiar, aside from the use of video clips, and it was tightly timed to avoid repetition or rambling, but anyone who saw it as excellent TV has a taste for stately PBS NewsHour presentations rather than forceful commercial TV or searing prestige-TV drama.
These hearings – Thursday’s prime-time event was the first of six televised hearings – will have to try harder to be consequential TV in the weeks ahead. There was no wow moment on Thursday.
The strategy of the committee seemed to be multipronged and leading somewhere eventually, but eventually means weeks away in a culture that craves the instant and the spectacular. What actually happened inside the Capitol was, wisely, offered as a reality check. Testimony and footage showed brutal violence and rage. This counters the narrative presented by Donald Trump and his supporters and acolytes that the Capitol was indeed invaded but it was no big deal, just rambunctious folks anxious about the election results.
That these two versions of events can co-exist is a sterling reminder that many Americans currently inhabit a state of sublime cynicism. What’s true is also false and what happened might not have happened at all. Any student of American literature knows that there is a strong strain of disillusioned pessimism in the culture and that strain is currently in the ascendancy. It’s a strain of feeling that Trump and Fox News feed off, daily.
The thread being established so carefully on Thursday evening was that the attack on the Capitol was not an impromptu boiling-over of confusion and resentment, but the climax of a stealth campaign by Trump to deny the result of a fair election and ultimately undermine it. Yes, it was a surprise to witness footage of former attorney-general Bill Barr, in a deposition, say that he called out Trump’s assertion of election fraud. Yes, it was notable to see Ivanka Trump, in a few seconds of testimony, assert that she believed Barr was correct. But it wasn’t flabbergasting. The narrative has moved on from the Trump family being central figures in this strange drama. That drama was cancelled or, as Trump might see it, put on hiatus. Ivanka Trump’s words have little traction in the here-and-now.
More ominous was the picture painted of the extremist Oath Keepers and Proud Boys ready to storm the Capitol to aid and abet Trump. There were gasps when Representative Liz Cheney read aloud an account, a vignette really, that had Trump asserting that if the Capitol mob was chanting for vice-president Mike Pence to be hanged for refusing to block the election results, perhaps Pence “deserves it.”
In the long history of outrageous and crackpot assertions by Trump, that one stands out. But as a wow moment it is already diminished by Trump’s Friday morning dismissal of his own daughter’s testimony. The fact that Trump was and is cantankerous, ungracious, often conspiracy-obsessed, isn’t startling news at all.
The committee, through these televised hearings, is attempting to put on the record the chaos and barbarity of the Capitol attack, and show that Trump was the central figure in what Representative Bennie Thompson called “an attempted coup.” What it cannot do, after offering a grim picture of the chaos, is restore order.
That moment has passed. The arc of the narrative of much American storytelling these days bends toward the vagaries of perception. That’s why there are so many sci-fi mysteries airing and streaming, series telling viewers that seeing is not believing. Fox News declined to air the hearings live and instead spent ages belittling the event as a sham after it had ended. On this occasion, Fox News is, not for the first time, on to something in the atmosphere of the United States.
The hearings continue during daytime hours on Monday and Wednesday. More revelations are promised but the opening episode told the world only what many already know, and others blithely deny.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.