The Jan. 6 hearing put a true-crime drama on prime-time TV
By James Poniewozik
The first night of the congressional Jan. 6 hearings was not an entertainment. It was deadly serious reality, offering a panorama and a terrifying close-up of a real nightmare: The attempt, through violence, to effectively end American democracy by overturning the will of the voters and keeping President Donald Trump installed in an office that he lost.
But the hearings were also television, fighting for attention in a cacophonous media environment. This is not just me speaking as a TV critic. The committee itself acknowledged this by bringing on James Goldston, a former ABC News president and producer, to shape the broadcast, and by airing it, unusually, in prime time.
This was not simply a dutiful time capsule for the historical archives. This was TV meant to break through, and to matter, now.
What we saw in this first installment was impressive: a well-crafted, passionate and disciplined two-hour opening act. It made the committee’s case in miniature, that the attack on the Capitol was no spontaneous outburst but rather the “culmination of an attempted coup,” in the words of the committee chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. And it promised, tantalizingly, to flesh out the larger plot with fine detail and an expansive cast.
The proceedings had familiar hallmarks, including live testimony and opening remarks from Thompson and from the vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. But it was packaged like a prime-time news special, the live elements seamlessly interspersed with recorded interview excerpts, time stamps and graphics.
Even more striking, however, was the broadcast’s structure, which recalled 2022’s most ubiquitous TV format: the true-crime and true-scandal limited series.
Like “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Candy” and similar ripped-from-the-headlines dramas, it introduced the culminating violent act in its first episode — the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — in a point-of-view montage that made the viewer the target of the mob’s blows and curses. Then it promised to move back in the timeline and delve into the larger conditions and machinations behind the crimes.
It had episodic structure and a serial arc. Cheney laid out how each installment would focus on a piece of a “seven-point plan” by Trump. But the presentation also put these parts in an overall context, giving evidence that Trump was told by his closest advisers that he lost, schemed to throw out the election anyway and summoned supporters, including organized, violent groups, for a “wild” day in Washington.
Then the muscle materialized, under the banner of Trump.
At compact length by congressional standards, the hearing introduced a universe of characters, relationships and antagonists: the president’s advisers, including former Attorney General William Barr, who used “nonsense” and stronger language to dismiss claims of election fraud; Trump’s fury at his vice president, Mike Pence, which according to the committee led the president to say that the mob members threatening to hang Pence might “have the right idea”; and Trump-supporting groups, including the Proud Boys, described as leading a coordinated strike, not a spontaneous outburst.
The curtain raiser was at times brutal to watch, particularly the testimony of Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer injured Jan. 6, who described “slipping in people’s blood” as she and her outnumbered comrades faced hours of hand-to-hand combat. Maybe most haunting was seeing the quiet-spoken Edwards watch video of her own assault.
The testimony moved to the other side of the battle line with documentarian Nick Quested, who had been embedded with the Proud Boys before and during the attack. His contribution was not just more shocking footage but a thesis: that the group had organized and begun its move toward the Capitol before Trump even spoke at his Jan. 6 rally — a counternarrative to the idea that the siege was simply a protest that got out of hand.
I know that some readers are offended by the mere use of “narrative” or “story” to describe crucial information about an attack on democracy. But these are no insults; story structure is not just for Marvel movies. Narrative is what gives a deluge of information form and pattern. Storytelling is a tool for engagement, not just distraction.
The committee clearly knows this. As Jake Tapper noted on CNN before the hearing, it did not have to televise these sessions at all. It could have just issued a report. But as TV has proved, not everyone wants the 800-page paperback when they can opt for the compelling multipart adaptation. (At least 20 million people watched the hearing, according to ratings released Friday by Nielsen.)
And if you want to know the power of applying the lessons of entertainment TV to politics, look at Fox News, which did not air the hearings but spent the evening actively attacking them. Roger Ailes, a former talk show producer, built Fox in part on showbiz production values, provocation and appeals to emotion. The current star of that channel, authoritarian-friendly Tucker Carlson, was telling his sizable audience that the bloody assault on the center of government was “forgettably minor.”
The Jan. 6 hearings have to live in this context of infotainment and demagoguery, like it or not. And the first episode was savvy not only about the larger TV audience but also about a smaller one — the news media — and what it takes to maximize coverage.
Nothing draws the news like novelty; a brief scooplet, freshly exposed, will often outweigh a brazen plot freely confessed from a presidential podium or by tweet. So the committee repeatedly referenced “never-before-seen” video, a descriptor that was repeated over and over in the TV coverage.
The program offered preview clips of boldface-name testimony — including that of Ivanka Trump, undermining her father’s claims by saying that she accepted Barr’s assessment — which gave reporters numerous tidbits to write up and tweet about. Even the run time, at just under two hours, left time for recap and analysis before the broadcast networks’ 10 p.m. block.
There was, however, a key difference between this production and a TV crime drama. The hearings left no mystery about their theory of the case, and they engaged in no coyness about whodunit (in the committee’s judgment), how and why.
One last distinction, and maybe the most important: This, for once, was a true-crime serial made in the urgent hope that there not be a sequel.