If you subscribe to the New Yorker, you’ve likely experienced that pang of guilt, which accompanies seeing a stack of unread magazines. You want to make it through each week–really, you do. But some of those articles are just so long. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney and producer Dave Snyder may have hit on the perfect solution to not only assuage subscribers’ guilt but also draw new readers to the magazine. They’ve just launched an Amazon pilot called The New Yorker Presents, a half-hour TV program, co-produced by Condé Nast Entertainment and Jigsaw Productions, which is meant to emulate the experience of reading the magazine.
When the New Yorker arrives at your door, says Gibney, the “stories and poems take you places that delight you and provoke your imagination and curiosity about the world. We tried to bring that same sense of delight, provocation and sense of curiosity to video pieces.”
The show is a docu-series, combining both documentary shorts, stop-motion animation and scripted scenes. The pilot opens with a hilarious vignette written by Simon Rich. It’s followed by two documentary shorts based on magazine articles and concludes with Andrew Garfield reading a poem by Matthew Dickman. Between each segment is a pithy stop-motion New Yorker cartoon. With so many disparate elements packed into one 30-minute show, The New Yorker Presents could easily feel over-saturated and cluttered. Remarkably, each segment has enough space to breathe. This works, in part, because of how the segments are arranged. Viewers “should feel like they’re going on a journey,” explains Snyder.
The pilot opens with the Rich sketch, in which Alan Cumming as god is sitting on a NYC sidewalk, attempting to advise one of his doomsday disciples. “Seeing him open the show on a regular New York street is a great way to begin,” says Snyder. This leads into a conversation between writer Ariel Levy and performance artist Marina Abramović. After this, comes a Jonathan Demme-directed piece about controversial biologist Tyrone Hayes, based on a Rachel Aviv article.
“Tyrone is the longest and weightiest piece of pilot,” says Snyder. “If you put Marina after him, the audience may not have the attention that you’d like. But you also don’t put her first, because [unlike Cumming] she’s not known to everybody.” Snyder chose to end the pilot with a poem to give the whole program an air of mystery. “It leaves you with the feeling that this will be interesting show,” he says.
In addition to the segment order, the aesthetic choices also provide a coherence to the overall production. Gibney says that like the magazine itself, there is an inherent “creative tension” in the docu-series between its myriad artistic voices and its overall, unifying vision. “We did a pretty good job of coming up with stylistic elements that make you feel that you’re in same universe even though you’re visiting different planets,” he says. This includes the title sequence of animated New Yorker covers. “It conveys a sense of delight in the video medium but also the wonder of those covers,” Gibney says. He adds that the covers rarely have anything to do with the content of the magazine, and yet they somehow set the tone for the reading experience. Similarly, “putting all the covers together in a title sequence reflects the variety [of the program] but does so under the large New Yorker banner.” The animated cartoons between each segment also provide a kind of aesthetic connective tissue.
Of course, there’s the question of whether the docu-series format is too compelling. How much easier and faster it is to watch a 30-minute program than to slog through that (sometimes) endless magazine. Gibney and Snyder believe that if Amazon orders more episodes of The New Yorker Presents, it might actually inspire greater interest in the print version. “They’re short video segments,” says Gibney,” but they intrigue. I might want to dig deeper into the magazine and explore back issues.” He adds that most of us engage in a mix of long and short-form media consumption–“from people engaging on Twitter to people watching a two and a half hour movie.” He says we treat the magazine in the same way. “The first thing you’d always do with the hard copy is flip through it and look at cartoons. Then maybe on a Sunday afternoon, when the fire’s going, you’d dig into those articles.” When audiences have access to print and cinematic versions of the magazine, we’ll also want access to both formats. “It’s a complementary relationship,” he says.
“In reviews of the show,” Snyder adds, “people say, ‘I don’t live in New York. I don’t know anything about these kinds of people. But I loved this, because it’s exposing me to work that I didn’t know anything about.'” After watching the show, he says, “when these people see the magazine they’ll be likely to pick it up.”