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The Pod Save America TV show is not going to save democracy–or even your Friday nights

The popular Democratic political podcast takes its act to television, to diminishing effect.

The Pod Save America TV show is not going to save democracy–or even your Friday nights
Daniel Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor. [Photo: courtesy of John Johnson/HBO]

If you’re going to make a podcast into a TV show, shouldn’t you do more than just film a live taping of your podcast?

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It was hard to watch Friday night’s debut of the limited, four-episode Pod Save America series on HBO. For many reasons:

  • The disconcertingly large stage set with the disembodied head of George Washington anchoring stage right, like the taping was taking place at a postapocalyptic Mount Rushmore rather than a Miami theater.
  • For some reason I can’t quite explain, the Pod Save America branded note cards immediately rankled me as an unnecessary indulgence. (I guess plain note cards would look bad on TV? I don’t know.)
  • The clapter. Oh, the clapping where the laughter is supposed to go, the scourge of televised political entertainment filmed in front of a studio audience (see everything from Sam Bee, John Oliver, The Daily Show . . . ). Pod Save America is most certainly a media vehicle engineered to generate lines that elicit applause where the humor is supposed to go.
  • The nagging sense that once you actually see Pod Save America rather than just listen to it (and lose the ability to listen to it at 2x speed), one cannot escape that it’s really just Meet the Press with younger panelists who can–and do–say fuck and dick a lot.

I will say this, though: Everyone looked great, so kudos to Jon and Jon and Tommy and Dan and Erin’s nutritionists and bootcamp instructors or Peloton salespeople, as well as their personal discipline to get camera-ready.

If you like the Pod Save America podcast and look to the show as your go-to for political analysis with curse words, well, that’s this HBO show! No one has messed with the format of the show that’s garnered 322 million downloads since its inception in early 2017. In fact, only two pre-taped segments, one meant to be funny and the other one serious (more on that in a moment), distinguish this from a live episode that might show up in your podcasting app of choice. Well, that and the lack of ad reads, so apologies to all the fans of ZipRecruiter, Stamps.com, Tommy John, Mvmt watches, Square’s Cash app, and all the rest. (While this may be obvious, I am a Pod Save America listener, and, in fact, I have listened to every episode, and its forerunner Keepin’ it 1600, but at this point I find the show most useful as a barometer for centrist Democratic thought.)

But here’s the thing about Pod Save America: It’s not just Meet the F—ing Press. Perhaps the most disconcerting part of the show is its relentless shilling for Vote Save America, a creation of Crooked Media, the media startup that produces Pod Save America. Vote Save America is pitched as a way to make sure you’re registered to vote and to encourage you to take action by canvassing or phone-banking for a Democratic candidate in your area. So far, so good, though there are critics, particularly in the leftist podcast-iverse, who criticize the limited scope of their activism to voting the Democrat ticket.

To do so, Vote Save America has licensed tools from the organizations Vote.org and MobilizeAmerica (as well as BallotReady for candidate and referendum info). You can’t do much on the votesaveamerica.com without surrendering your email address, which the privacy policy acknowledges will be used, along with a lot of other information–including location data, everything that can be learned from installing cookies and tracking pixels on your device (which is a lot!), as well as third-party info–to send you into the vortex of the Democratic establishment and its fundraising operations. As the privacy policy states, the data collected about you may be used to “send you information about various campaigns, candidates, issues, events, resources, tools, products, and services and otherwise provide you with information you request or that we think will be of interest to you” and perhaps most tellingly you’re agreeing that the data can be used to “carry out any other purpose for which the information was collected.” But it never specifies what that is! It’s likely just solicitations from Joe Biden, but even then that seems like a high price to pay just to find out if you’re voter registration is in order. Pod Save America, then, is not a project to save democracy, as its promo ad boldly stated, but rather a bid to save the Democratic Party.

UPDATE: In an email exchange with Pod Save America co-host Tommy Vietor, he emphatically states, “This is absolutely not a data harvesting play. We are not going to sell your email to the party or to a campaign or to anyone else. That’s just wrong. We’re only going to send you updates about the election. That’s it!” He later added, “We are trying to get more people involved in politics using the best tools we have available.”

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Back to the entertainment show! Jon Lovett was showily wearing his Vote Save America T-shirt, and the shirt was the big prize for an audience member during one of the games Lovett plays on stage. The “Democracy or Else” taped bit, which involved comedian Akilah Hughes helping Lovett and Tommy Vietor learn to get over their fear of canvassing, plays like 1,000 bad Funny or Die political videos, from its plinky background music to its overly staged “explainer comedy” that goes so far as to delineate how to knock on a door.

Worse, the bit ends with Lovett walking away from a house, saying, “I don’t want to be a dick but I fucking hated those people.”

That’s the big punchline: The California speechwriter-turned screenwriter-turned-podcasting star-turned-HBO star thinks these Floridian hicks are beneath him!

Back on stage, Erin calls out the joke in an effort to shrug off its stereotypically liberal smugness: “Thank you to Jon Lovett for being condescending to everyday Americans.”

Then Lovett, tripling down to make clear that this is perhaps not a joke at all, replies, “Shut up, you rubes. I’m salt of the fucking earth.”

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[UPDATE: Vietor says that the Democracy or Else segment was filmed in California and that the joke was at Lovett’s expense, not any voters. “The idea is to show people that canvassing is fun and important and worth their time,” he writes. “We made a funny/silly video that is hopefully shareable to do just that.”]

There was 40 more minutes of show, during which there was some reasonably good conversation about Medicare for all and one particularly inspiring teen activist working on climate change, but the game had already been revealed.

Pod Save America is neither good television nor good activism, but it does contain a worthwhile object lesson: If you want to get involved, you don’t need a TV show, website, or podcast to do it.

To see for yourself, the full episode is up on YouTube:

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