If you’ve ever seriously wondered why television critics in this country are respected by no-one – even as television criticism around the English-speaking world enters some kind of magical golden age of relevancy thanks to the irresistible rise of the recap – may we quote Debi Enker on The Weekly:
“Through four months on air, the show has really started to strut its stuff. The scope of its interest has been broad and its focus sharp.”
The only way you could write this with a straight face is if you had spent the last four months a): not watching The Weekly and also b): completely avoiding the internet. The scope of The Weekly‘s interest has been “what is the internet talking about this week?”; its focus has been “get Pickering to cover a news story then say something smart-arse at the end of every third sentence.”
And then oh dear God there’s this:
“Pickering’s approach has led to criticism that the show is preachy, that he’s taking a finger-wagging tone and lecturing to his audience. Phooey to that. The obvious models here, Jon Stewart and John Oliver, don’t seem to incite comparable objections when they spotlight issues or express persuasively argued opinions. Often, they’re cheered. It’s as though foreigners are allowed that licence, but some of us get stroppy when locals do likewise, as though, heaven forbid, they’ve got tickets on themselves. Surely the criteria should be: is it a significant subject? Has it been capably covered? And, given the satirical bent of the show, has it been presented with some wit?”
Is it a significant subject? What, like that lion the US dentist shot?
Has it been capably covered? Well yeah – considering the coverage consists entirely of running other shows’ news clips.
Has it been presented with some wit? No. C’mon, seriously? No.
There are many reasons behind the problems with The Weekly – the budget, the talent, the need to avoid pissing anyone off – but the end result is that it’s not funny. Compare it to an episode of Mad as Hell, we dare you. It’s lightweight news coverage at best, and at worst it features Tom Gleeson trying to pretend that the “joke” with his segment is that it’s amazingly popular. The only way that joke is an actual joke is if his segment is unpopular. And even then that joke might work once; when you’re making it for three months straight, maybe the reason you’re unpopular is that you aren’t all that funny.
And because it’s lightweight news coverage (that is to say, news coverage that involves no actual original reporting), it’s built around a guy telling us stuff. So why do people say The Weekly is preachy? Because it features Charlie Pickering ACTUALLY PREACHING TO THE AUDIENCE. (We’d use “lecturing” rather than “preaching”, but same difference.) Blaming mentally ill people for gun violence is bad: an extended segment in a comedy show where all you’re doing is pointing out that blaming mentally ill people for gun violence is bad? That’s worse.
Put another way, you know how every other fake news comedy show has had a joke “rant” segment, from Saturday Night Live to The Late Show to CNNNN to Mad as Hell? That’s because the idea of a news reader giving his or her opinion on an issue is funny.
And yet The Weekly was built around doing this comedy idea completely straight. It’s just straight and fairly shallow current affairs coverage with a couple of snarky lines thrown in. And even in 2015 the ABC has an entire news department doing this stuff better.
Meanwhile, Helen Razer tells it like it is for The Saturday Paper:
we cannot blame Pickering entirely for a program whose aims exceed its execution. We must also blame funding, which can only buy analysis reheated from that week’s internet buffet instead of fresh, hot jolts. Working to a tight deadline and budget, writers are forced to let shaky cynicism substitute for knowledge. This program, very clearly derived from John Oliver’s impeccably researched Last Week Tonight, never had its high hopes costed. It aims to bring us informed irreverence. What it actually offers is something more like a vanity newsletter written by an underpaid youth worker.
Razer, being no fan of the trivial – see roughly 80% of her commentary on pop culture and the internet, which can be boiled down to “why are people paying attention to this crap when the real problem of entrenched financial inequality goes ignored” – gives The Weekly the thumbs down in large part because of its dismissive cynicism:
With a few exceptions, notably a timely report on proposed funding cuts to the cost-effective Custody Notification Service, Pickering has led a program that tailors news to a single punchline and conclusion. To wit: it’s all fucked.
Which is a little odd, because the version of The Weekly we were watching was desperately trying to make serious points week in week out. The previously mentioned segment on the way the media demonises the mentally ill wasn’t based around “shaky cynicism” or concluding “it’s all fucked”. True, many of the news jokes being made on the show did come from that easy point-of-view. But the problem wasn’t that it served up a “single punchline and conclusion” – it was that too often it didn’t serve up any punchline at all.
Rather than cynically dismissing issues for the sake of a laugh – which we might have actually enjoyed – time and again segments ended with a straight-faced Pickering looking down the barrel of the camera telling us that the situation he’d just outlined simply wasn’t good enough.
If only he’d done a report on his own show.