In his films, underdog-with-a-camera Michael Moore has taken on former GM Chairman Roger Smith (Roger & Me) and Nike CEO Phil Knight (The Big One), but the premiere of Moore's newest half-hour series on Bravo, The Awful Truth (Wednesday nights, continuing through August 9), went up, appropriately, against Jesus Christ. It didn't make a dent in the ratings of CBS's Jesus, though Moore's stories are as much about morality and politics and villains and heroes--and they're funnier.
Typically, The Awful Truth (like its predecessor, Moore's TV Nation) takes a metaphor and makes it concrete, or takes a conservative position and exaggerates it with great Pollyannaish enthusiasm. In the first episode, Moore suggests that, since the presidential candidates seem to "all believe in exactly the same things," the best way to pick a candidate is to see who will be the first to jump into a mosh pit and be passed along the top of a crowd of "degenerate, registered-to-vote youth," who are banging up against one another to the sounds of a Rage Against the Machine song. He travels the country with a truckload of kids, going from candidate to candidate, getting dismissed and removed until finally Alan Keyes, in a moment that almost made me want to have voted for him, follows his own campaign manager into the pit. As he flings himself backward onto the crowd--an excellent visual metaphor for American politics--"Vote for Alan Keyes" flashes on the screen. "He may be a right-wing lunatic," Moore concludes, "but he's our right-wing lunatic."
Later, correspondent Jay Martel one-ups the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle, whose job is to tell kids who see a gun, "Stop. Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult." Suggesting that this doesn't go far enough, Martel sets out to "help our young people learn about the beauty of guns." He introduces Pistol Pete, the singing, dancing gun. Pete chases laughing kids around the schoolyard ("Who wants to show me that they know how to beg for their life?") and, like Eddie, leads them in a festive sing-along ("Pistol Pete! Pistol Pete! Pull my trigger and feel my heat!"). In another episode, Moore has a gas station offer discounted gas from Saddam Hussein, forcing consumers to choose between avoiding a bad man and getting a good bargain. In yet another, he observes that police encountering African Americans with various objects--a hair clip (Arkansas), a remote control (Detroit), a spatula (Chicago), and, of course (in New York City's Amadou Diallo case), a wallet--are mistaking the objects for guns and shooting the carriers. Moore helpfully arranges an "African-American wallet exchange" to "make the streets safe again," giving away Day-Glo orange wallets "that no policeman will mistake for a gun" and spray-painting house keys and candy bars, just in case.
A report on the pro-execution policies of governors Jeb and George W. Bush proceeds with the language and graphics of sports broadcasting. "Who's the toughest Bush?" Martel asks in sportscasterese, noting that although Texas's execution record is impressive, Jeb brought in a new lethal injection machine and "the confidence that Florida could challenge Texas for the title." Martel reports as a "fan." He attends execution watches in both states, first eating chips and cheering for Florida, then defecting to Team Texas, where in a disturbingly hilarious scene, he provides a marching band, a rowdy drinking buddy, a "big-ass Texas-size scoreboard," and pompon-waving cheerleaders for the execution of Karla Faye Tucker.
To be sure, The Awful Truth features the same old Michael Moore schlub-crusader thing, by now as familiar as his trademark baseball cap and parka and the sight of a mock-befuddled Moore being hustled out of the way by security guards. And the show is composed entirely of segments--sometimes quite clever, often too cute--that rest on one joke.
But Moore is still really good at this, and even if it's not for deep political insight, there are good reasons to watch The Awful Truth. One, of course, is the simple satisfaction of watching powerful people make fools of themselves, or flash some true and ugly colors, or be skewered on their own ideologies. A disoriented Orrin Hatch ("Mosh pit?") considers Moore's ridiculous endorsement offer, thinks better of it, and then agrees to one "body slam." George W. Bush treats Moore like a rotten child, telling him, "Behave yourself, will ya? Go find real work." (Cut to Moore on the phone to his father, asking if he's got an oil company, a major league baseball team, "or something like that," for Michael to run.)
Moore's literalizing satiric strategy also gives rise to some unexpectedly edgy moments, as when, at the end of the wallet-exchange stunt, he takes the idea of African Americans as perpetual suspects to its extreme and rolls tape. As Moore proposes that the only way a black person can truly be safe is to walk around with his or her hands up and visible at all times, we see smiling kids in baby carriages with their hands in the air, people holding grocery bags over their heads, folks chatting on the corner or walking casually down the street with their hands up. The images are simultaneously silly and chilling, light and deep.
In fact, when Moore's team sets things rolling and just gets out of the way, some of the most disturbing stuff emerges as the people being satirized accept what the producers take to be absurd premises. (This quite mean tactic, making fun of people who do not realize that they are the joke, is used to great comic effect by shows such as The Late Show with David Letterman and Comedy Central's Daily Show. On Moore's show, at least, there is a political point to be made, and most of the subjects arguably cause harm to others through their foolishness or hypocrisy.) When Pistol Pete goes to a gun show in Vegas ("I'm home!"), he gets an enthusiastic response from an exhibitor. "This is a good idea!" says the exhibitor of Pete. "It gives the kids something to relate to." After some "Isn't Texas kicking Florida's ass?" prodding, Florida state representative Victor Crist says, with no irony whatsoever, that he doesn't "see any reason why Florida couldn't execute two inmates a month," allowing that "if Texas can, why can't we?" When Moore's Texas execution cheerleaders shout, "George, George, he's our man! If he can't kill 'em, no one can!" most of the pro-execution demonstrators present--who are holding signs that say things like "Kill the bitch!"--applaud. The creepy truth is that the satirical exaggeration turns out to be no exaggeration at all.
" I am advertiser friendly," a gung ho Michael Moore declares at the start of this season, standing under billboards in the "new" Times Square. "God bless America, and God bless every damn corporation in it," he says, between endorsements of Budweiser, Crest, Coke, and American Express by a series of ex-cons. His attempt to mock the hand that feeds him is understandable, if a bit unconvincing. Advertisers are reputed not to like the sort of show that consistently proposes that corporations are bad and greedy, politicians corrupt and silly, police racist and brutal, conservatives hypocritical and foolish, and so on, and yet, here he is. "We should be doing stuff that is going to get us kicked off the air," Moore likes to say, and yet, here he is. Perhaps Moore overstates the degree to which he threatens the powers that be; mischief-making like his can inspire, but is not equivalent to, organized resistance. But even at its most predictable, The Awful Truth is a decent reminder of the narrowness and humorlessness of the rest of mainstream television's political discourse. Only The Simpsons has the same kind of bite, and that's a cartoon.
It's also a reminder of the compromises involved in translating oppositional ideas into entertainment, especially TV entertainment. Moore has been criticized in the past for simplistic politics, for making himself the center of attention, for humiliating people on camera, for making a living off of working-class discontent, and for making light of serious issues. These are, however, exactly the features that make The Awful Truth work for television: its celebrity centerpiece, its chewable subversiveness, its entertaining ambushes, its little-guy populism, its broad humor and broad strokes, and, more than anything else, its broad targets. The show keeps its good guys and its bad guys easily distinguishable. This is useful--there really are bad people who need to be stopped, and exposing them through humor is a good step--but also limiting. It insulates the audience, flattering them with the suggestion that they get, and therefore are not, the joke. The formula that allows The Awful Truth to carve out a space on television is also what pulls it back from the biggest bite satire can provide: the recognition of yourself somewhere in the terrible gag, the sense that you are laughing at an exaggerated picture not just of some ridiculous others, but of a piece of you. ¤