The New Yorker is known for its polished prose, witty cartoons and sophisticated style. With Amazon Prime Video’s “The New Yorker Presents,” the magazine’s elegance has been transmuted to screen. Overseen by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”), the series offers short narrative films, documentary work, poetry, animation and cartoons, as well as exposure to some critically acclaimed artists of a variety of mediums. Compelling in both form and content, “The New Yorker Presents” seems poised not only to become the strongest current option of docu-tainment, but to be another weapon in Amazon’s battle as it strives to reach the kind of popularity that Netflix has as a streaming service.
The pilot opens with a segment on people that have the “Truman Show Delusion” — they think their lives are being filmed without their consent for reality television — which immediately hooks viewers. It features a segment from Gibney about how 9/11 could have been prevented, if the CIA hadn’t kept information from the FBI. Though a complex and perhaps risky segment to start out with — especially considering they only have 34 minutes to fill — it’s comprehensive. An outline is given of all the information to which the CIA had access and withheld from important FBI agents. By analyzing these events through the tension between these two organizations, the writers of this segment stay away from sounding too much like government conspiracy theorists.
The show adds a dose of humor in the form of a short narrative film, “Le Café de Blazac” — shot with a perhaps semi-ironic, yet still aesthetically pleasing, sepia filter — in which Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) plays Honore de Blazac, the 19th century French author known for drinking unbelievable amounts of coffee daily. An even shorter comedic piece by Simon Rich (creator of “Man Seeking Woman”) features Alan Cumming (“The Good Wife”) playing God speaking to Brett Gelman (“The Other Guys”), who runs around preaching in his underwear, as per God’s instructions.
Within the first few episodes, there’s an interview with performance artist Marina Abramovic. Due to time constraints, it feels like a more superficial introduction to her work than she may deserve, but it’s functional and fun nonetheless. The main investigative piece is a profile on biologist Tyrone Hayes, which is as entertaining as it is informative. Finally, one of the most evocative pieces is the exploration of racialized violence in America through art by writer Edwidge Danticat, in a segment titled “Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain,” inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.
The b-roll in “The New Yorker Presents” is just as skillfully made and beautiful to watch as the footage from the main stories, and the score always perfectly complements the segment. The animated cartoon sequences and The New Yorker office vignettes provide breathing space in between the more complex stories and balance out the journalistic and creative elements. Unlike other NYC-centric media, it’s completely accessible to those who aren’t familiar with the magazine — though for those that do read it, there are familiar touches. The style of The New Yorker’s copy — down to the fonts — is echoed in the cinematography.
“The New Yorker Presents” may feel uneven in terms of what kind of content is in each episode, but that doesn’t detract from it; rather, it’s one of the strongest points of the show. The combination and complementation of documentary-style work, animated cartoons, narrative films and storytelling, poetry and conversations with artists is what makes the series fun to watch in a way that a straight documentary often struggles to accomplish.