There are three kinds of people who should watch The New Yorker Presents, now streaming on Amazon. (1) Faithful readers of America’s most award-winning magazine, big words and small font be damned! (2) The well-intentioned who vow to read The New Yorker cover to cover (not just the cartoons) only to cower as yet another issue of the Pulitzer magnet sits unread in the bathroom, silently mocking. (3) Everyone else.
It is worth watching The New Yorker Presents, in part because its pedigree really does count for something. The magazine’s slogan, “Read something that means something,” can easily be changed to, “Watch something that means something.” Every moment of the series is a gift of beautifully crafted, unbridled joy. The kind of joy that comes from discovering a place, person or thought that is unexpected and illuminating — sometimes quirky, sometimes serious, always fascinating.
Each episode features segments that bring elements from the magazine to life: animation of famous covers; documentary shorts and sketches based on published articles, poetry and fiction; and “over-the-shoulder” peeks at cartoonists like Roz Chast at work. The “Around Town” videos are glimpses into self-contained little worlds that make you feel like a fly on the wall or, in the case of The Black Ant restaurant, more like a fly on the plate.
The series opens with a look into the magazine’s fact-checking department. Granted, that doesn’t exactly sound like heart-pounding entertainment, but the quick (under two minutes) video reveals the heart and soul of the magazine and sets a powerful tone. The New Yorker Presents holds fast to the same motto that hangs on the wall above the fact checkers: “True is better than done.” The series is so immensely entertaining because the stories it tells are unabashedly human.
The New Yorker Presents is produced by Condé Nast and Jigsaw Productions, which is helmed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, whom Esquire called “the most important documentarian of our time.” Gibney didn’t earn that title by doing things the same old way, which explains why The New Yorker Presents is in a class all its own. Serious topics, like the United States prison system, are presented with the same artful, nuanced gift of storytelling that goes into pure escapist fun, like the sketch starring Alan Cumming as a God who gives really awful advice to a street-corner prophet.
High points in the series are plentiful, but a few standouts include the profile of Cassandro, one of the most famous Exoticos in Mexican wrestling, whose triumphant real-life battles dwarf the many he’s won in the ring. Others include the film by Jonathan Demme about the biologist Tyrone Hayes, and the documentary about Craig Thornton, the revolutionary chef behind the underground Los Angeles restaurant Wolvesmouth. One especially weird and wonderful “Around Town” segment is about the Museum of Morbid Anatomy, where perfectly nice women learn how to skin a rat (there really is only one way) and create taxidermy dolls. One woman fancies giving her rat the likeness of Abraham Lincoln.
More than giving you loads of fodder for compelling small talk, The New Yorker Presents does something infinitely more valuable and lasting: It leaves you with the sense that in this deeply flawed, wonderful world of ours, we alone define ourselves; and anything is possible.
Out of the Box is a biweekly column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.