In Audience of One, New York Times chief television critic James Poniewozik traces the history of TV and mass media from the Reagan era to today, explaining how a volcanic, camera-hogging antihero merged with America’s most powerful medium to become our forty-fifth president.
If TV execs were asked to classify James Poniewozik’s illuminating new book...they might use the term 'dramedy.' Poniewozik is a funny, acerbic and observant writer ... But Poniewozik, the chief television critic of this newspaper, uses his ample comedic gifts in the service of describing a slow-boil tragedy. If humor is the rocket of his ICBM, the last three years of our lives are the destructive payload ... Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Audience of One is that it makes Trump’s presidency seem almost inevitable. Of course he won ... Audience of One is worth the price of admission just for its brilliant dissection of the 1980 film comedy Caddyshack, which I had mostly remembered for Bill Murray’s battle with some species of marmot. In Poniewozik’s take the movie is a prophecy of our current nightmare ... Poniewozik never underestimates Trump’s malicious genius (as so many of us have) ... ...Poniewozik offers few solutions for the problems that plague the mass media realm...He is less a neurosurgeon (though I suspect he would not confuse a Middle Eastern fundamentalist movement with baba ghanouj) than a general practitioner with his stethoscope tight on our country’s wheezing chest.
Poniewozik is a witty, acrobatic guide through recent decades of TV ... Reading Poniewozik is like watching a motorcyclist zip around traffic. (Traffic being the wider history of populism, values voters, demography, etc.). He is abundantly smart, and you get the sense that he's just tossing out connections and theories the way you might scatter bread crumbs to pigeons ... But the book's largest omission is a serious consideration of Trump's supporters. You can easily see how Trump's belligerent, spiteful performances would get him attention. But what happens in that small, crucial distance between attention and support? ... when [Poniewozik] imagines himself into the minds of Trump voters, the result feels artificial ... both brilliant and daring, particularly when it comes to Trump's image making. It is a tactile pleasure to read. Poniewozik's sentences zip! His jokes land! His interpretations shimmy! ... But I couldn't get past that gap, the one between image and audience, the place where the thinking, digesting, and responding happens. In Poniewozik's reading, Trump's supporters must be stupid, dazzled creatures, absorbing the darkest messages of television and regurgitating them uncritically on the ballot. But people are not mere receptacles of culture. And treating Trump voters as yous rather than its — in other words, as though they have interiority, beliefs, and the ability to weigh options — does not exonerate them. If anything, it acknowledges that they are fully responsible for the choice they made.
Among other Trumpian lacunae in their educations, it’s unlikely that most political writers had ever bothered to actually watch The Apprentice. Poniewozik most certainly did, and that’s how he’s able to go past the usual lazy comparisons of Trump’s White House to a reality-TV show to break down, in detail, how uncannily The Apprentice anticipated the m.o. of the current regime at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue ... At its most far-reaching, the book retells Trump’s life story as, in effect, nothing less than the history of television ... Poniewozik is at his best in charting the metamorphoses in TV’s demographic, cultural, and political role in American life since midcentury that eventually combined into the perfect storm that bears Trump’s name ... For reasons that may be generational—he began writing about TV the same year The Sopranos premiered—Poniewozik overstates the blandness of traditional broadcast-network fare ... It’s to Poniewozik’s credit that he underlines how the upscale, boutique shows that liberals and 'TV critics like me' enjoy—Mad Men, The Good Wife, and so on—are so alienatingly at odds with red-state reality-TV faves like Duck Dynasty that the two audiences can scarcely be said to still be watching the same medium. Unsurprisingly, his recommendation that we need to wean ourselves off Trump TV and remember the medium’s—and our culture’s—other, more inclusionary narratives is among the weakest passages in this uncommonly rich and stimulating book.