better call saul 2018

I don’t know whether Season Four of “Better Call Saul” will turn out to be the best show on television this year, but for the ten weeks this fall it provided a uniquely gripping and hypnotic viewing experience. TV needs more shows like this.

“Better Call Saul” is a TV rarity – a prequel that’s as good as the series that spun it off, in this case the acclaimed “Breaking Bad.”  It tells the origin stories of many key “Breaking Bad” characters, with a special focus on the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman and the mob hit man Mike Ehrmantraut.  And then finally, in the last spoken line of this season we learn how the main character gets his name when he says, don’t worry, “It’s all good man.”

I was never a fan of “Breaking Bad,” which was too violent for my weak nerves. Moreover, I never found the transformation of Walter White from a meek chemistry teacher into a master drug dealer very credible.  No one changes THAT much.

Like “Breaking Bad,” “Saul” depicts the moral disintegration of its two main characters, except on a much more believable scale. We learn that “Saul Goodman” is actually Jimmy McGill, the brother of New Mexico’s most respected lawyer and a one-time screw-up who’s trying to go straight and use the law to help people.  Meanwhile Mike is a dirty ex-cop grieving his dead son – an inexperienced police officer who fatally tried to follow his father’s path into petty graft. (It’s worth noting that contrary to most TV shows, the most intense relationships on “Saul” are among blood relatives, not romantic interests.)

At the beginning of the series, Jimmy and Mike are already ethically compromised, but not excessively so.  They have consciences and are full to the brim with empathy.  It’s not predetermined that they will also “break bad” in a major way.  On “Better Call Saul,” characters don’t consciously decide to pass over to the dark side.  Instead, as in real life, their path involves a series of decisions – some of which involve attempting to do the right thing and discovering that being honest and humane can actually hurt you.

Be forewarned, though, that watching “Better Call Saul” takes a lot of work.  It’s the ultimate lean-in show, featuring a lot of ingenious schemes that require your total concentration.  I would almost recommend not watching with a spouse because at least once an episode there’s a conversation that goes like this:

“Why did he do that?”

 “I don’t know anything more than you do.”

 “But what’s he trying to accomplish?”

 “I just said: we’re both getting the same information at the same time.”

The pacing of “Better Call Saul” is also unique on TV.  Hardly an episode goes by that doesn’t slow down and demonstrate step-by-step how some mundane task is accomplished – even something as basic as assembling loose-leaf binders.  It’s like learning how to fish by reading early Hemingway. And a lot of this serious attention to detail involves the law.  I’ve learned more about the nuts and bolts of being a lawyer from this one show than from all the legal procedurals in television history combined.

There are two main mysteries at the heart of “Saul,” both involving the ultimate fate of fully developed characters who don’t exist in the “Breaking Bad” universe. One is Kim Wexler, the best character on the show and arguably one of the best characters currently on TV.  She’s Jimmy’s tightly wound girlfriend – a legitimate lawyer who likes to walk on the wild side and who’s reluctant to give up on the guy she loves.  The other is Nacho – a foot soldier in a local drug gang who risks his life to protect his sweet and innocent father from being drawn into the crime world.

Over four seasons we’ve come to care deeply about both Kim and Nacho and it’s hard not to speculate on and feel anguish over their coming fate – whatever it is.  In particular, this scene of Kim confronting a lawyer who has consistently screwed over Jimmy is my favorite scene on TV this year.

“Better Call Saul” is not a huge ratings hit and doesn’t get much buzz, but TV still needs more shows like it.  It sets the bar high for what network TV and basic cable can accomplish in an era where the momentum seems to be moving to streaming services.  With all due respect to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or “House of Cards,” neither Amazon not Netflix have yet developed a series as visually stunning or intelligent as “Better Call Saul” (or “The Americans” for that matter.)

More important, we need more appointment television – more shows that we think about during the week.  TV needs to have people dying to watch the next episode of their favorite series.

Commercial TV can’t thrive on reality shows, cooking competitions, lazy sitcoms, obvious procedurals, and movie reruns.  We’ve got the streaming services for that. Traditional TV needs to widen the enthusiasm gap among viewers who can turn to Netflix anytime to see a pretty good show but would really prefer to see an excellent one on a weekly basis.  If TV doesn’t keep coming up with the occasional great show, it will wither away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

beverly hillbillies

Whenever I look back at number-one-rated shows from the past, there’s always one that puzzles me – “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

I can understand why “I love Lucy,” “Gunsmoke,” “All in the Family” and “Happy Days” were all massive hits.  But why was “The Beverly Hillbillies” such a huge blockbuster?  In the 1962-1964 era about a third of all households were tuned to the show.  That’s the modern equivalent of 30 Super Bowls a year for two years.

The popularity of this series has perplexed because I actually remember when it came on and knew even then it was kind of dumb.  As an adult I been wondering if perhaps my memory was wrong – maybe it was better than I remembered.  After all, when I now watch its contemporary “The Andy Griffith Show,” I appreciate it in a way I never did as a child.

Well, thanks to the miracle of Amazon Prime I am now able to watch all the old “Beverly Hillbilly” episodes I want.  But be careful what you wish for because when I recently streamed a few shows I realized it was even worse than my recollection; I had to turn it off after a handful of episodes.

The premise of the series is that a family of simple Appalachian mountain folk (the Clampetts) strike it rich when oil is discovered on their land and move to Beverly Hills, where they experience culture conflict with their more traditionally wealthy and snooty neighbors.

Jeffrey Melton an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama points out that this is a “one joke” show and boy is he right.  In episode after episode the alleged humor is derived from the Clampetts’ extreme naiveté and lack of understanding of modern cultural norms.  Thus the swimming pool is called the “cement pond” and the pool table in the billiards room is construed to be some kind of special dining table – complete with bumpers to prevent spillage and a glued-on felt table cloth. Ha ha.

A secondary source of humor on the show is that the young characters – the daughter Elly May and the nephew Jethro – are ideal specimens of physical beauty but have no sexual desire themselves and don’t pick up on the va-va-va-voom impact they’re having on others.  Elly May, a country girl who’s lived among animals all her live, supposedly doesn’t know “the facts of life,” and Jethro is about the only virile twenty-something in the United States who is consistently obtuse when beautiful women are coming on to him.

Professor Melton makes the case that the “Beverly Hillbillies” was so popular because it embodies “The American Joke,” that has preoccupied American humorists for centuries – the gap between the ideals of equality espoused by politicians since the Declaration of Independence and the reality of how American society has turned out.  The joke is we purport to believe that all men are created equal and yet strive mightily to enhance our status and climb a ladder that theoretically doesn’t exist.

To that end, “The Beverly Hillbillies” mixes together the very lowest socio-economic class with the very highest. And lo and behold, the rich are as clueless as the Clampetts, with stuffy uncomprehending butlers, vain wives and their own ridiculous behaviors.  This would have resonated in the more egalitarian sixties, when the U.S, boasted a vast middle class; in a monoculture worshipping the new suburban lifestyle, people could laugh harmlessly at both their social inferiors and their nominal social betters.

The problem in a one joke show, though, is that the inability of the characters to understand each other goes on and on, episode after episode.  No matter how many years the Clampetts live in Beverly Hills they never learn a thing and are always surprised by the most basic aspect of modern life. And their neighbors never seem to be able to explain anything to them – like how a gas stove works.

My real frustration with the Clampetts is that they aren’t the sly country bumpkins of most rural humor.  It’s much funnier when a hayseed is underestimated by a snob and then turns out to be wiser than expected.  Not here. The humor always depends on Clampetts being dumber than expected.

Once you know about the theory of “The American Joke” you can see it everywhere – in soap opera dramas like “Dallas,” “Empire,” “Gossip Girl,” and “Billions” and comedies like “The Jeffersons,” “Arrested Development,” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”  As believers in the American dream, we long to be rich ourselves but gratified to see that wealth doesn’t bring happiness.

What we will not see today, however, is a show that outright mocks hillbilly culture.  Ever since the movie “Deliverance,” hillbillies have seemed dangerous.  On “Justified” and “Ozark” for example, they are outright frightening.  And knowing what we know now about that culture from J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” it would be kicking a vulnerable population in crisis while they’re down to make fun of hillbillies these days.

Nope, it’s always safer to mock the rich.  Let’s watch “Succession.”

 

Sport-on-TV

Sports programming, the bedrock of the television business model for the past decade, has fallen on hard times.  That’s not only bad for television, it’s bad for American culture in general.  (Now that’s a sentence I never thought I would write!)

The fate of televised sports is important to the health of the broadcast industry because it’s one of the last bastions for live viewing.  Advertisers love shows in which viewers can’t fast-forward through commercials.

But after years of growth even televised sports is faltering, suffering from trends affecting the rest of the television landscape, especially the migration of younger viewers to the Internet.  Ratings for TV mainstays like football and baseball are declining, as they are as well for global events like the Olympics and the World Cup.  Meanwhile, ESPN is downsizing, with online platforms like YouTube, Deadspin, The Bleacher Report, and Yahoo Sports providing the immediate access to highlights and commentary that used to be the cable network’s bread and butter.

As dismal as declining interest in sports is for the television business, it’s even worse for America’s mental health.

I say this as a long-time critic of American sports culture and the monomaniacal fans, coach potatoes, gamblers, and travel team coaches who let sports take over their lives.  One of my proto-Marxist college professors used to call sports the “modern opiate of the masses,” claiming it distracted workers from appreciating how exploited they were.  That professor might have been a whack job about a lot of things but he was right that Americans could spend their Sundays more profitably than watching football game after football game on TV.

Unfortunately the cultural brain space freed up by the eroding interest in sports  has been filled with a surge of divisive political consciousness.  This is not good.  If the people who used to watch ESPN all day switch over to Fox and MSNBC I don’t think that’s an improvement.

Sociologists and anthropologists have long recognized that humans are a tribal species, finding protection, validation, and meaning as members of groups.  For thousands of years, a human’s key group was an actual tribe (and still is in many parts of the world).  But as society became more complex, humans came to identify themselves with newer institutions: their country, church, college, union, fraternal organization, or community.

The rise of television weakened many of the traditional ties that people had built locally.  They started staying home to entertain themselves in front of the TV instead of attending lodge meetings, joining in bowling leagues, or going to church. And as their identification with neighborhood groups waned, Americans increasingly started to identify themselves instead with local sports teams.

Although people can go overboard on sports, it’s usually a relatively benign form of group identity.  Each major pro league has about 30 teams and each state has its State U, creating a diverse range of smallish fan bases.  This means that fans of even the most popular sports brands – the Yankees, Lakers, and Notre Dame – are in a small minority and have to comport themselves accordingly.  If 90 percent of the country has a different sports loyalty than you do, then you have to tread lightly and accommodate yourself to differing opinions.

The beauty of rooting for a sports team, no matter how passionately you care in the moment, is that the stakes are low.  As much as it hurts, it doesn’t REALLY matter if your team loses.  Win or lose it’s a consequence-free catharsis.

But as people have transferred their allegiances from their sports to their political teams, the results have been disastrous for our national cohesion.  For one thing, there are only two political “teams,” which means a citizen can spend an entire day never being exposed to a fan of the other team and never learn how to get along with an opposing view.

Worse, political fans actually feel morally superior to the other side in a way that only the most rabid sports fans do.  A Yankee player eating in a Boston restaurant would not be chased out by opposing fans, which has now become a common practice in politics.

Moreover, the obsession with politics is not limited to election season any more.  It’s all-politics all-the-time.  Fox and MSNBC ratings soar as mouth-foaming commentators egg on their viewers like unhinged sports-radio hosts.  Almost every day seems like the political equivalent of a play-off game, except that the play-offs eventually end and political intensity never lets up.

Before the rise of professional sports in the late 19th Century, politics occupied the overwhelming presence in American life that it again does now.  From about 1830 to 1860, Americans were obsessed with politics, which provided both entertainment and a group identity for a vast majority of American men.  Voting participation reached 80 percent in the elections of 1840 and 1860 (compared to 58% in 2016).  That period also culminated in the Civil War because voters developed such intense and unwavering political principles that they couldn’t compromise on anything.

Instead of launching a new civil war, maybe we can all take a chill pill and channel our aggression back into sports.  Turn off the cable news channels and wall-to-wall political coverage and focus those tribal instincts back on your childhood team.  You’ll feel better — even if they don’t win the World Series or Super Bowl. There’s always next year.

 

 

Succession photo

With Labor Day in the rear-view mirror and those crisp fall September nights beckoning us, let’s take one last look at the TV summer that was.  Or wasn’t, as the case may be.

TV activity has always declined in the summer, but I don’t recall a season of television as unremarkable and unremarked upon as the one that just ended.  Which is surprising, given that the previous summer was dominated by two amazing series – the monster hit “Game of Thrones” and the critical darling “Twin Peaks: The Return.”  And the year before featured the break-out Netflix hit “Stranger Things.”

Network television, especially, seems to have given up completely on the idea of providing original creative programming in the summer.  Week after week the top-rated broadcast offerings this summer were reality TV shows.    There were a couple of hits in this category: “America’s Got Talent” attracted big audiences (especially among over-50 viewers) and the 20th (!!) season of “Big Brother” also drew a lot of eyeballs.  But a network that can only get by with reality TV programming will eventually slide into cultural irrelevance.

There were only a couple of cable shows that seemed to break through the 2018 summer ennui – “Succession,” HBO’s media-baron-based dramedy that loosely recalls the Murdoch empire, and “Killing Eve,” the BBC-TV kill-or-be-killed drama.  Neither show had huge ratings but as their series moved to their concluding episodes they did seem to gain small footholds in the national conversation.  But since they were sleeper hits their real impact will be felt next near when they return for season two.

In my home we finally bought a large screen TV this summer. It has a fantastic resolution and provides a beautiful viewing experience. It was great for finally catching up on “Game of Thrones.” I only mention this because when I recently accessed my DVR to watch the first few episodes of this season’s “Better Call Saul,” I realized that since we’d bought that TV, it hadn’t recorded since the final episode of “The Americans” last May.  My “to watch” list was essentially empty for two month. And it certainly hadn’t been tuned to anything live since we brought it home.  That’s a whole summer of viewing limited to Netflix, HBOGO and MLB.TV and sadly representative of where TV is these days.

I do find it surprising that the broadcast and basic cable networks, which are advertiser-supported, don’t even seem to be trying in the summer any more.  After all, if they don’t get viewers they don’t get advertising revenue.  It’s the subscription services – Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Showtime – that work harder at offering original programming in the off-months, even though they get paid whether anyone watches the channel or not.  Obviously their key strategy is to make sure that at least one person in the house cares enough about at least one show to argue against cancelling the service.  To that end the subscription services only slightly take the foot off the accelerator in the summer.  Thank goodness SOMEONE’S not taking us for granted during the hot months.

But in an age of horizontally integrated media conglomerates maybe the corporate brass doesn’t really care if their entertainment businesses go dormant for a few months since their news businesses don’t seem to slow down at all in the summer.  If anything, rising temperatures seem to contribute to hotter, more outraged, news coverage.  Perhaps Universal and 2st Century Fox are OK with low ratings at NBC and Fox TV as long as they are steady or even higher at MSNBC or Fox News.

Still, it makes me nervous that regular viewers of live TV are spending their summers watching only reality TV and the news shows.  The last thing we need is for people to conflate those two TV genres.  Where do the Stormy Daniels and Omarosa sagas belong?  On the news or on reality TV?  This summer it was hard to tell.

 

Omarosa 2

The controversy over Omarosa Manigault Newman is, among other things, a callback to days when TV was king and the electronic media could single-handedly drive a news story.  Indeed, until the President of the United States described Omarosa as a “dog” on Twitter, social media and the print press had done little to advance the narrative.

Unfortunately, the Omarosa news bomb, coming on the heels of the Stormy Daniels circus, is a good example of why so many people believe the media traffics in “fake news.”  That term means many different things to many different people, of course.  It originated as a description for entirely fictional stories planted by Russia on Facebook during the 2016 election.  Then President Trump seized on it to deride mostly accurate media coverage he doesn’t like.  But for many people, “fake news” is now a catch-all reference to biased, misleading, or just plain ridiculous reporting.

Television news, with its contradictory need to either boil down a complicated story to a few minutes on the evening news, or expand a few key facts into multiple hours of coverage on the 24-hour news networks, has always been prone to trivialization, bias, and over-simplification.  And the Trump presidency, which has compelled the media to take sides, has only exacerbated it.

Whether you think television news is fake depends almost entirely on your politics and what channel you’re watching.  If you’re a liberal you think Fox News is nothing but fake news and if you’re a conservative you’re convinced the rest of the TV landscape, starting with but not limited to MSNBC, is entirely agenda-driven in the other direction.

The Omarosa contretemps shows how far the profession of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite has fallen.  This is a woman who rose to fame as a villainess on a reality TV show.  Until two weeks ago she was considered a national joke and unworthy of serious consideration.

And yet there she was on “Meet The Press,” once the destination for prime ministers, potentates, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairmen, political candidates, and other worthy but slightly dull newsmakers.  And there she was on the prestige morning news shows.  And there she was even on the staid and ever-so-proper “PBS NewsHour.”  In the blink of an eye, she was transformed from a nutcase into a serious commentator on the Trump presidency.

The media justifies giving Omarosa and her tell-all book the star treatment by saying she’s a former senior White House advisor who can provide insight into President’s Trump’s views on race.

Yet the idea that Omarosa was an important White House official is dubious at best.  She was the communications director the White House Office of Public Liaison, which is usually a dumping ground for true believers who theoretically gin up support among special interest groups.  To be the communications director for this department is hardly working at the pinnacle of power.

As for the rationale that Omarosa can now finger Trump as a racist, well, what can she tell us that we don’t already know?  Half of America already believes that he’s an outright racist and doesn’t need Omarosa’s verification to solidify their views.  The other half thinks that when you call Trump a racist you are also calling THEM racists and even the release of a tape of him saying a racial epithet won’t change their minds.

Ah, the tapes! Now we come to the crux of what makes this a great TV story – not an important story, but a compelling piece of tabloid trash that has been elevated to a media sensation.  After all, who doesn’t get a frisson of excitement when listening to a surreptitiously taped conversation even if we learn nothing new?

Omarosa has played her part well – stringing out her story by selectively leaking these secret recordings.  But her biggest news hook has been her claim that the long-rumored tape of Donald Trump uttering the N-word actually does exist. Or that she heard the tape herself. Or that she heard him say it himself. Whatever.  Something bad.  What’s striking about this claim is that on one of the very tapes she released from 2016, she is heard asserting to her colleagues that the N-word tape is real (see video below).

In other words, despite believing he said such a thing she remained on the campaign two years ago and even defended him against allegations of racism.  As far as I can see, the only reason she changed her mind from thinking he was not a racist to thinking he was is that she got fired.

This focus on whether this tape exists has overshadowed a much more powerful Omarosa claim: that the president’s mental skills have deteriorated, an assertion she backs up by comparing Trump’s cognitive skills on “The Apprentice” to what they are now.

Everyone has already made us his or her mind as to whether Donald Trump is a racist, but an allegation that he has dementia is a line of attack that could potentially peel off wavering supporters.  Yet once again Donald Trump is lucky with his enemies.  Omarosa and the news media are not only even less respected than he is but they can’t even muster the one argument that could really hurt him.

 

About three scandals and one stock market plunge ago, Facebook launched an advertising campaign to apologize for fake news, privacy breaches, spam, and other social media offenses.  This lovely ad promised that they’d fix these problems and get the platform back to its original purpose.

The ad was very effective and even made me choke up a little.  No surprise there, because I’ve found that the big tech companies produce the most compelling advertising.  I’ve also loved every Google ad.

But here’s the thing.  When Facebook wanted to apologize to a large audience, it ran a TELEVISION ad.  Facebook controls a huge amount of the country’s online advertising inventory but when the chips were down it used the same platform used by Texaco, Norelco, and Frosted Flake in the 1960’s:  the one-minute TV spot.

Facebook undoubtedly knew that limiting its apology ads to the online world would have minimal impact.  Successful advertising requires good storytelling – through words and images – and the online world is generally unsuited for that.

Online advertising can be effective for transactional messages (i.e., “to buy this razor now click on this link”) but not so effective for traditional brand ads.  Google ads I understand because I can see the value in buying prime space during product searches, but Facebook I don’t get.  And yet major ad agencies have twisted themselves inside out to shift their focus to Facebook.  What gives?

I ask this question as a Facebook stockholder myself, albeit a very tiny shareholder.  I certainly do not regret the huge run-up in the Facebook stock price since its IPO.  (What I do regret is that I didn’t buy a hundred times more shares!) But I don’t really understand it.  I admit this as someone outside the ad industry and would welcome feedback from insiders who can produce evidence on the usefulness of Facebook ads.

I am not among those Facebook users who get wigged out by the company sharing my personal data with advertisers.  In fact, I prefer it because I’d rather see ads that are relevant to me.  I’m just not sure if it’s that effective.  When I look at my Facebook page today I see an ad for L.L. Bean.  Fair enough. I’ve been buying apparel from L.L. Bean since the days when you had to fill out a form from their catalog and mail it back to them.  But I am so familiar with L.L. Bean that a Facebook ad will not sway me in the least to purchase again.

The “sponsored posts” in my Facebook news feed seem somewhat more compelling.  I usually just blip over them, but for the sake of this column I just went back and took a close look at what’s there and here are the first four sponsored posts.  Offers from:

  • SeaVees, apparently a laceless canvass sneaker. I probably wouldn’t buy one, but it’s not crazy for them to think I might.
  • Allbirds.com, another sneaker company.
  • The Sundance clothes catalog. Again, I have bought jewelry for my wife from Sundance but am unlikely to do so again until Christmas and I won’t decide that based on a suggested post.
  • Vanity Fair magazine, offering a one-year subscription for $8. This is more like it.  I would actually contemplate this offer but already get too many magazines at home so used my willpower to decline.

So at least one of the four suggested ads piqued my interest.  Is that a good rate of return even if there’s not a sale?  I’ll leave that to the analysts to debate.

It’s probably unfair to say Facebook advertising is ineffective based on a handful of ads at one moment in time.  I am rarely moved to go out and buy whatever product is shown on TV either, although I am much more likely to at least see a TV ad, since I usually sit through TV advertising but almost always scroll past those suggested posts on Facebook.

I also wonder how Facebook makes money given how seemingly cheap their ads are.  The company recently reported that the Russians have tried to interfere in the 2018 mid-terms by placing 150 political ads.  The cost of those ads?  $11,000. At that price, you can’t really blame Putin.  Even I, as cheap as I am, would spend $11,000 if I thought I could affect the outcome of the upcoming elections.

Although I’m a skeptic about Facebook effectiveness in promoting big brands I am a big believer in what they can do on behalf of non-profits, nearby cultural programs, and local businesses.  I’m on the board of a small nonprofit and have seen the value of raising awareness through targeting a few thousand potential donors.  I’ve also attended concerts and art shows that I’ve learned about on Facebook.

Unfortunately there’s not much money in promoting non-profits and small local businesses. Still Facebook, has convinced the major brands they need to be on this platform.  Will this hold? Maybe.  It says something about our political climate that Facebook is more in trouble for allegedly helping Donald Trump become president than for not being an effectively advertising vehicle.

whoisamerica-guntraining-kindergarten-700x304

So Sacha Baron Cohen is up to his old tricks again.  After having achieved notoriety as Ali G, the fake interviewer with the funny accent who duped former Secretary of State James Baker and others into answering silly questions, Baron Cohen went on to even greater fame as Borat, a fake documentarian from Kazakhstan.

The Baron Cohen shtick is to make politicians and ordinary people look ridiculous by tricking them into interviews under false pretenses and then engaging them in an increasingly absurd line of questioning until they figure out they’ve been had.  This is supposed to reveal something profound about the purported absurdity of the American experience.

This is hardly an original approach to comedy or social commentary.  Half of the content on“The Daily Show” consists of mocking interviews with some poor rube who doesn’t watch “Comedy Central” and doesn’t know better than to engage with its “correspondents.”

But my purpose today is not to critique Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series “Who Is America?,” which I probably won’t be watching anyway, but to wonder how it is that 14 years after “Da Ali G Show,” people still fall for his tricks?

I have a professional interest in this question. Having worked in public relations for a long time, I’d like to think that no client of mine would even be interviewed by a disguised Sacha Baron Cohen.  It is the job of a PR handler to vet the interviewer well before anyone agrees to talk in front of a camera.  You do this by talking with his or her producer, then verifying everything they’ve told you via Google searches and databases like Cision and Gorkana.  Best practices would then call for the PR team to produce a briefing memo with the bio of the interviewer, some suggested themes, and maybe even some potential questions.

It’s fair to say that none of these procedures were followed before Baron Cohen’s victims agreed to be interviewed for “Who Is America?” However, those of us on the outside are in no position to second-guess too aggressively, because we don’t know what claims were made to induce the subjects to be interviewed.

There are allegations that Baron Cohen and his staff gained credibility by telling interview targets they were working on a series for Showtime.  If that’s true, I think this is the last time any sane person would allow himself to appear in a program described as a Showtime documentary.  On the other hand, at least one of the Baron Cohen characters apparently represented himself as a representative of truthbrary.org, which purports to be a conspiracy-oriented website.  If anyone clicked on this outlandish site and still agreed to the interview, then he got everything he deserved.

My guess is that few if any PR handlers were involved in arranging these interviews.  The people who appear in “Who Is America?” fall into two general categories: 1) politicians like Bernie Sanders, Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney, who have been interviewed so many times that their staffs probably no longer bother to do rudimentary checks on interviewers; and 2) regular schmoes who are interviewed so rarely that they don’t even know they should do some research first.

Reporters sometimes claim that public relations people run interference between them and potential newsmakers — but shows like “Who Is America?” and “The Daily Show” demonstrate why so many people use PR staff to shield them from potential mockery.   If I were in the Public Relations Society of America, I would launch a PR campaign based solely on Sacha Baron Cohen clips with the tagline, “Don’t Let This Happen To You!”