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Amazon shows its artsy side with 'The New Yorker Presents' series (Q&A)

CNET chats with two of the minds behind Amazon's first news magazine show, which debuts Tuesday.

In a documentary segment of "The New Yorker Presents," gay Mexican wrestler Saúl Armendáriz flashes through an arena crowd while wearing a mile-long sequined coat. Then he struts around the ring to the beat of disco anthem "I Will Survive."

A skit in another episode of the TV show tackles the rumor that novelist Honoré de Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day. Comic actor Paul Giamatti plays a very caffeinated version of the famous French scribbler.

"The New Yorker Presents" marks the first time Amazon has created a news magazine show for its burgeoning streaming service. The Seattle-based company is fighting, along with rival Netflix, to grab more viewers by pushing into higher-quality original programming. Amazon has so far made a mark with "Transparent" and "Mozart in the Jungle," both Golden Globe winners. The company is hoping this new series is another success.

Debuting Tuesday, "The New Yorker Presents" is intended to be as eclectic as the iconic publication on which it's based. There are cartoons, investigative documentaries and a lot of the periodical's dry wit.

Seeing New Yorker stories come to life on the small screen is "a little strange, and exciting," the magazine's editor, David Remnick, said at a press luncheon last week.

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Paul Giamatti on a caffeine kick in the short comedy "Le Cafe de Balzac."

Photo by Amazon

The series' showrunner, Kahane Cooperman, joined the project after spending nearly 20 years at "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." She teamed with Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, an executive producer for the series. CNET spoke with both of them about the show. Here's an edited transcript.

Q: What would you like to convey to people about this project?
Cooperman: This isn't just a re-creation of magazine articles as they are. That's really important. It's actually an opportunity to sort of reinvent the news magazine format, and we take these articles from this incredible magazine and that's our starting point for every piece. But then we let the filmmakers take it from there.

Gibney: Yeah, it's like a riff. There was a song called "How High the Moon," and after Charlie Parker did it, it was called "Ornithology." You know, you take on something and you take it someplace else. David Remnick and we both agreed on that -- that there's no point redoing what The New Yorker did. Let's do something fresh that inhabits the spirit of The New Yorker.

Cooperman: And I love that it's not hosted. There's not one person's voice guiding you through every piece.

And that was intentional?
Gibney: That's right. It's not like a bus tour, it's a convertible with the windows down and the radio on. And you can look around.

Cooperman: Good one, Alex. Dang!

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From left: New Yorker editor David Remnick, showrunner Kahane Cooperman and executive producer Alex Gibney.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

What was it like taking something like The New Yorker, a more than 90-year-old magazine, and connecting it with Amazon Studios, which is run by a 20-year-old online retailer?
Cooperman: Amazon as our network -- the voices that were coming to me from there were saying, "We're so excited about this. Go take risks. Go take risks. Go take risks."

Gibney (with a smirk): They did say, "Try to do as many shows about electronic appliances as possible."

Cooperman: Exactly!

They came at it from a storytelling perspective. I was given a lot of trust to follow my instincts on this, and I was really looking out for the filmmakers' visions.

The Hollywood Reporter said this is not exactly groundbreaking television. How do you feel about that?
Gibney: I don't know what that means. I mean, if you think about what a normal magazine show is, this looks pretty different than that. And the pieces are fun; they're really interesting stories told by some of the best storytellers in the country. So that's pretty exciting television to me.

It's two episodes a week for five weeks, instead of a binge-watching model. What was the intention there?
Cooperman: There are a few reasons that Amazon made that decision. One is a nod to the magazine. The magazine comes out on a weekly basis, and for the people who read it, you look forward to getting that issue. Every week, viewers will have something to look forward to in terms of what's gonna be in these episodes. And the other thing -- and this is something that someone at the lunch mentioned, was that she didn't think she could ever binge-watch this because she wants to spend time thinking about what's in these episodes and not just jump into the next one. I actually was, like, "That's perfect."

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Cooperman kicks off a screening at a press event Tuesday in Manhattan.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

As far as virtual reality, is that an area you're looking into for future seasons?
Cooperman: It's something we're already salivating over the idea of.

Gibney: We're asking Amazon to build "The New Yorker Presents" helmet.

Cooperman: It looks like a top hat.

Gibney: Which is something you can get if you're on Amazon Prime, and you just put it over your head and there's a spike that goes straight into your brain.

Oh, come on.
Gibney: It's just a way of connecting with the nerve endings. That's all.

So where do you go from here?
Cooperman: This is the first season. We're waiting. We're literally on the edge of our seat to hear if we get a second one. We hope we do. There are a lot more stories in that magazine to tell.

Gibney: We could be a lot more reckless in our second season.

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