Friday, October 28, 2016
  • Friday, Feb. 12, 2016
Series Based on "New Yorker" Magazine Debuts on Amazon
In this Jan. 11, 2016 file photo, executive producers Alex Gibney, left, and Kahane Cooperman participate in "The New Yorker Presents" panel at the The Amazon 2016 Winter TCA in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
Kahane Cooperman, Alex Gibney team on show showcasing work of documentary filmmakers
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After working 18 years at "The Daily Show," Kahane Cooperman had only a weekend off last summer before starting a job running Amazon's new video version of The New Yorker magazine.

In retrospect, she considers that a blessing.

"I would have lost my nerve if I had more time to think about having to do justice to the institution that is The New Yorker magazine," said Cooperman, who created the series with "Going Clear" filmmaker Alex Gibney and Conde Nast Entertainment chief Dawn Ostroff.

The New Yorker regularly features a formidable mix of deeply reported stories and profiles, fiction, slices of life, cultural coverage and cartoons. Makers of "The New Yorker Presents" achieved the small miracle of capturing the magazine's rhythm and pioneering a "60 Minutes"-style newsmagazine with the work done by documentarians instead of news reporters.

Amazon is making two episodes a week available for five weeks, starting Tuesday, then will pause to assess the marketplace's reaction and decide whether to make more.

Each 30-minute episode has stories of various lengths, anchored by a longer piece from filmmakers like Gibney, Steve James, Roger Ross Williams, Dawn Porter and Eugene Jarecki. Examples are a profile of the gay star of Mexican wrestling, stories on competitive bull riding and police pursuit of a legendary silver thief, and a look at intelligence agency infighting before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Shorter pieces include a skit with Charles Grodin and John Turturro as a psychiatrist and patient, a story on erotic art created by a Finnish advertising executive and people who tell, in a 12-step style meeting, of odd encounters with Bill Murray. Interstitials explore worlds within The New Yorker itself, like its cartoonists and fact checkers. Random Manhattan sites are visited, like a hat maker in Harlem or the Morbid Anatomy Museum, where hipster girls skin rats.

Most of the show's pieces are inspired by things in the magazine, but Gibney didn't want video recitations of print articles. He asked filmmakers to focus on angles that interest them. One longer piece, Jarecki's look at Cuba, came from nothing that had been in the magazine.

"What does The New Yorker magazine provide for people?" Cooperman asked. "What it really does in each issue is provide a window into many different worlds. And I thought this show could do something similar."

It fills a void, too. Traditional newsmagazines, with the exception of "60 Minutes," are scarce on network TV. "The New Yorker Presents" and Vice's work with HBO are taking the format in new directions.

The involvement of Gibney and Cooperman sold David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, on an idea he initially regarded with wariness.

"I'm a complicated customer," Remnick said. "Anything we do that's called The New Yorker, I don't want to sound snobby, but I want it to be as good as the magazine, or at least how I imagine the magazine is."

Not every piece works. An essay on elevators seems caught between sociology and history, and doesn't satisfy on either level. But the batting average is high, and the show avoids stuffiness. It will appeal to the sensibility of the average New Yorker reader and, Remnick hopes, people who aren't familiar with the magazine or website.

Most stories during the initial run were filmed last summer. One of the only real topical pieces, an Adam Gopnik essay on gun violence, was prepared in the aftermath of the San Bernardino, California shooting. Gibney said if the series continues he'd like to figure a way to make it more current and on top of the news. His dream is to make "The New Yorker Presents" available as often as "60 Minutes."

Producers are also figuring out ways to take advantage of the magazine's cultural critics.

Remnick said he hadn't been actively looking to expand into television. But given today's media environment, he said he'd be foolish not to listen. He's pleased with how the series has turned out, comparing it with the magazine's own infancy.

"The New Yorker wasn't very good in 1925," he said. "This program is good right off the bat and that's a huge achievement."