Part 6—The joy of performance art: Janet Malcolm likes the Maddow Show. In fact, she likes it a lot.
Malcolm, "the nation's best magazine writer," penned an endless profile of Maddow for the October 9 New Yorker. She opened with gushing praise for Maddow, who she watches every night, by whose performance she's "mesmerized."
The key word may be "performance." According to Malcolm, she isn't mesmerized by Maddow herself, or by her the content of her reports; more accurately,she says she;s mesmerized by Maddow's performance.
Nor is she mesmerized by Maddow alone. She's also "mesmerized" by the Cialis and constipation ads she says she "stays and dumbly watches" each night as she waits for Maddow to come back from her commercial breaks.
In the second and third paragraphs of her endless profile, Malcolm describes this process of mesmerization. She also describes the Maddow Show as "a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show." According to Malcolm, the show is "TV entertainment at its finest," designed to make liberals feel good.
We've already asked one basic question. How have we as a nation have reached the point where such transparently dotty nonsense can possibly appear in an upper-class, upper-end magazine like The New Yorker? That's a question for David Remnick, who put this manifest nonsense in print.
Based upon these opening paragraphs, we'd have to suggest that Malcolm, who is 83, may have lost a few steps. That said, she notices many things about the Maddow Show which we have also noticed down through the years. It's just that she approves of sleight of hand, while we've long complained about it.
Malcolm seems to be thrilled by the sleight of hand! Today, let's focus on the ways Malcolm claims that Maddow is staging some sort of nightly "performance."
As she opens her endless profile, Malcolm correcrly states that Maddow "is the current sweetheart of liberal cable TV." From there, she proceeds to her confession of mesmerization.
We've posted this remarkable confession several times. Today, as we endure it again, let's note the way Malcolm says that Maddow is staging a performance:
MALCOLM (10/9/17): Maddow is widely praised for the atmosphere of cheerful civility and accessible braininess that surrounds her stage persona. She is onstage, certainly, and makes no bones about being so. She regularly reminds us of the singularity of her show (“You will hear this nowhere else”; “Very important interview coming up, stay with us”; “Big show coming up tonight”). Like a carnival barker, she leads us on with tantalizing hints about what is inside the tent.Try to ignore the embarrassing confession concerning the pleasures of the Cialis ads. Focus instead on the praise for Maddow's "performance," for the "sleight of hand" which turns an apparent cable news show into what it actually is: a "delicious experience of TV," "TV entertainment at its finest."
As I write this, I think of something that subliminally puzzles me as I watch the show. Why do I stay and dumbly watch the commercials instead of getting up to finish washing the dishes? By now, I know every one of the commercials as well as I know the national anthem: the Cialis ad with curtains blowing as the lovers phonily embrace, the ad with the guy who has opioid-induced . . . constipation (I love the delicacy-induced pause), the ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance in which the woman jeers at the coverage offered by a rival company: “What are you supposed to do, drive three-quarters of a car?” I sit there mesmerized because Maddow has already mesmerized me. Her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV. “The Rachel Maddow Show” is a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show. It is TV entertainment at its finest. It permits liberals to enjoy themselves during what may be the most thoroughly unenjoyable time of their political lives.
To us, the fact that the Maddow Show is actually "TV entertainment" explains why its host should be thrown down the stairs, out the door across the sidewalk and into the street. To Malcolm, this sleight of hand is a source of vast simple-minded pleasure.
That said, Malcolm expressly says that Maddow is staging a "performance." How many ways does Malcolm say this?
Let us count the ways:
Malcolm starts by referring to Maddow's "stage persona." She says that Maddow "is onstage" when she does her show, "and makes no bones about it."
She compares Maddow to "a carnival barker." In our view, this description more aptly fits the persona this channel's corporate suits have imposed upon Steve Kornacki, especially when he's perched before "the big board" and told to talk double-fast, hunched over, with sleeves rolled up, as he hands us repetitive reams of feel-good polling data.
That's feel-good entertainment for gobsmacked liberals too! Also, it's an imposition on Kornacki, who seems to be sane and is perfectly bright, well-informed.
Back to Maddow:
As she continues in that opening passage, Malcolm refers to "her performance," explicitly pairing it with the performance of the actors in the moronic TV ads she also thoroughly loves. In paragraph 4, she quickly refers to Maddow's "artistry."
That said, it isn't until a good deal later in her profile that Malcolm offers her most pregnant description of Maddow as something like a performance artist. Maddow seems to accept the framework. This is the intriguing passage to which we refer:
MALCOLM: Maddow’s TV persona—the well-crafted character that appears on the nightly show—suggests experience in the theatre, but Maddow has had none. “I am a bad actor. I can be performative. But I can’t play any other character than the one who appears on the show. I can’t embody anyone else.” To keep herself in character, so to speak, Maddow marks up the text that she will read from a teleprompter with cues for gestures, pauses, smiles, laughs, frowns—all the body language that goes into her performance of the Rachel figure. “My scripts are like hieroglyphics,” she said. I asked her if I could see a page or two of these annotated texts. She consented, but then thought better of it.Should we regard that as strange? Malcolm refers to Maddow's "TV persona," defining it as a "well-crafted character."
Maddow seems to accept this structure. She says that, unlike an actor, she can play no character other than "the one who appears on the show." As Malcolm describes the detailed ways Maddow preplans her trademark grinning, laughing, mugging and clowning to "keep herself in character," she issues her slightly puzzling, definitive statement:
This body language all goes into Maddow's "performance of the Rachel figure." Should that be seen as a strange description of a TV news program?
What does Malcolm mean when she refers to Maddow's "performance of the Rachel figure?" What does she mean when she refers to Maddow's "TV persona" as "a well-crafted character?" And whatever Malcolm might mean by these terms, is anything actually wrong with such a performance?
We'd be inclined to say the answer is no—unless the performance results in a "sleight of hand," a con in which a cable news program is turned into delicious "TV entertainment."
Make no mistake: we liberals are as dumb and ineffectual as any group who has ever drawn breath on the planet. In part for that reason, we've now been forced to notice the fact that Donald J. Trump is our president.
According to Malcolm, Maddow is staging a nightly sleight of hand. It's designed to make us liberals feel good at this horrific time. She's doing this, in large part, through her presentation of that "well-crafted character"—through "her [mesmerizing] performance of the Rachel figure."
What goes into the well-crafted character described as "the Rachel figure?" In the next few days, we'll ransack Malcolm's endless profile looking for nuggets and clues.
For today, we'll only say this: Malcolm seems to be describing the process we've long referred to as "selling the car." We've long suggested that Maddow is a highly skilled con man, a slippery salesman who's constantly selling the model known as The Maddow.
Malcolm seems to have noticed the same darn thing—but she seems to say that the con just feels so good. Like when Rachel put the lid of that baby-poop-colored canister right smack dab on her head!
What goes into "the Rachel figure," the well-crafted character you will encounter tonight? Tomorrow, we'll start to answer your question. On Friday, we'll wail and moan as Malcolm buys the latest con from this corporate TV star, a self-adoring figure who often makes us think of Donald J. Trump.
Tomorrow: Quite a bit more special than you