The New Yorker on Amazon Isn’t Just TV. It’s a Whole New Kind of Magazine

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A naked woman stands across from a naked man as a museum patron walk between them. An orchestra plays a captivating piece as some of the musicians stand knee-deep in water. A cartoonist sketches a young boy and his mother walking through a graveyard after a funeral. These striking…

A naked woman stands across from a naked man as a museum patron walk between them. An orchestra plays a captivating piece as some of the musicians stand knee-deep in water. A cartoonist sketches a young boy and his mother walking through a graveyard after a funeral.

These striking images appear in The New Yorker Presents, a series that premiered this week in a surprising place. Or at least, a place that would have seemed surprising during most of the storied magazine’s 90-year history, not to mention most of the 20 years Amazon has been around. But then, Amazon Prime Video has in the past two years become the latest unexpected place to find high-quality original television.

The New Yorker Presents tells diverse stories with beautiful visuals. Each episode is, in its way, like an issue of the magazine, with documentary shorts, cartoons, one-minute clips, poetry, and fiction. The 10-episode first season features well-known New Yorker writers and artists like Ariel Levy and Roz Chast as well as actors like Alan Cumming and Paul Giamatti. (The New Yorker is owned by WIRED parent company Condé Nast.)

“It’s not a re-creation of the magazine itself, but a step in the direction of a reinvention of the news magazine format,” says Kahane Cooperman, the executive producer and showrunner of The New Yorker Presents.

For Amazon and The New Yorker, which declined to comment for this story, the show is something of an experiment. It could attract new readers to The New Yorker and draw them into the magazine’s rich history. And Amazon gains the cachet of working with one of the most venerable names in publishing. Yes, The New Yorker Presents might not have the broad appeal of, say, Amazon’s critical hit Transparent or The Man in the High Castle. But The New Yorker has rarely tried to be anything other than its best self. Instead, the series shows how the risk of a traditional player entering a new medium (The New Yorker on TV) and of a newcomer entering a more traditional genre (Amazon in unscripted television) can create a new opportunity for both.

The New Yorker Universe

To create the show, Cooperman’s team read through dozens of issues of The New Yorker, creating a “menu” of stories that they thought were relevant, unique, and diverse while getting feedback from producers, editors at The New Yorker, and executives at Amazon Studios. Cooperman presented this menu to acclaimed filmmakers with varied styles, who then selected stories that most resonated with them. The idea was not, however, to recreate the magazine pieces in visual form. Rather, the written words were used as a starting point for filmmakers to tell their own stories.

This mélange of nonfiction and fiction developed by a range of writers and filmmakers makes the show visually unique. And, much like an issue of The New Yorker, you may find yourself moved by a feature on, say, how the FBI could have prevented 9/11, laughing with quirky cartoons, and perhaps skipping right over the fiction. Each part stands on its own, but the episodes (like a magazine) also were crafted to work as a whole.

“We spent the summer making more than 50 short films of varying length,” Cooperman says. “But we need to feel, as different as they each were, that they were all from the same universe.” To connect the stories, she developed interstitials that feel like they’re a part of The New Yorker world: iconic cartoons, the magazine’s offices, a hat shop in Harlem.

Breaking the Binge Model

The show marks a significant departure for The New Yorker. The magazine, after all, is an institution. Founded in 1925, it has featured stories from famed writers like Truman Capote, E.B. White, and Alice Munro. But while VICE and BuzzFeed have created their own video channels, a show isn’t an obvious fit for a more traditional publication like The New Yorker.

But like many publications today, The New Yorker is experimenting with new ways of telling stories to reach a broader audience as the number of options available to that audience grows, thanks in no small part to streaming services like Amazon Prime. In corporate speak, The New Yorker is trying to grow its brand. After The New Yorker‘s parent company’s entertainment division, Condé Nast Entertainment, pitched an idea to Amazon that the company didn’t think was the right fit, Amazon Studios television executive Joe Lewis suggested, Why not do a show with The New Yorker?

Lewis is a longtime reader and fan of The New Yorker—”long, long, long time,” he says. And he saw a chance for a true experiment, both in the form of the series and the kinds of stories it could showcase. “There’s no demerits for swinging for the fences and trying something new,” Lewis says. “The audience really wins.” So Amazon hired filmmaker Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions to produce the series along with Condé Nast Entertainment.

For Amazon, too, the new show marks new territory. It’s Amazon’s first original documentary series, part of an expanding roster of originals. And it’s taking a more magazine-like approach to rolling it out. Instead of dropping every episode at once, as has become de rigeur for streaming services, Amazon will release two episodes each week in the coming weeks. Yes, viewers could wait and watch the show out of order. But in parceling it out, Amazon is breaking with the binge model of rival Netflix and doing something more like The New Yorker itself, which publishes weekly. (Lewis would not discuss the financial relationship between Amazon and The New Yorker but says it’s similar to how other TV shows are produced.)

“The goal from the outset was always to do original programming—truly original shows that there aren’t other examples of on TV,” Lewis says, noting that Transparent is the perfect example of how the company has tried to break with scripted show norms. Amazon wants to do the same thing, he says, with unscripted shows. “What can we do there that’s truly different?”

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