James Poniewozik: The January 6th Committee Produces a Very Special TV Narrative

From a New York Times Critic’s Notebook by James Poniewozik headlined “The Jan. 6 Committee Produces a Very Special Episode”:

The Jan. 6 committee’s hearings have a lot in common with scripted TV mini-series: narrative, editing — even surprise reveals, as when the committee sprang a bonus episode, featuring Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, on a day’s notice.

One thing the hearings do not have, however, is episode titles. But if they did, it would be hard to resist calling this jaw-dropping installment “The Beast.”

As White House watchers know, “The Beast” is a nickname for the presidential vehicle. It also evokes the mayhem that Ms. Hutchinson described inside the vehicle as the attack began. Recounting a story she said she was told by a member of President Donald J. Trump’s security detail, Ms. Hutchinson said Mr. Trump grabbed at the steering wheel after being told he couldn’t join the mob at the Capitol and lunged at the throat of his own Secret Service agent. (Secret Service officials later denied that Mr. Trump assaulted an agent or reached for the wheel, but did not deny that he wanted to go to the Capitol.)

For one afternoon, the investigation played like the Watergate hearings as punched up by the writers’ room of “24.”

The session began with tension built in; simply holding it was a risk. By mysteriously announcing it with almost no advance details, like a surprise drop on Netflix, the committee opened itself to be panned if the hearing under-delivered.

It did not. In a stunning two hours of fly-on-the-wall testimony, Ms. Hutchinson, poised and measured at only 26 years of age, described Jan. 6 and the days leading to it in the White House, in a string of scenes and quotations so vivid they could be transcribed almost directly into an HBO docudrama.

There was the Trump booster and attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, days before the Capitol assault, asking, “Aren’t you excited for the 6th?” There was a raging Mr. Trump throwing White House dishes, leaving Ms. Hutchinson to wipe ketchup off a wall.

More gravely, there was Mr. Trump demanding that magnetic detectors be removed to allow armed supporters into his Jan. 6 rally (“They’re not here to hurt me”). And there was a chilling exchange as Mr. Meadows — described repeatedly as impassively staring at his phone — answered the attorney Pat Cipollone, who insisted that Mr. Trump defend the Capitol: “He doesn’t want to do anything, Pat.”

Ms. Hutchinson was not as big a boldfaced Washington name as some of the advance conjecture speculated. (Mike Pence? Ginni Thomas?) She did not have the professional stature of earlier guests like the former judge J. Michael Luttig; her testimony did not have the emotion of Wandrea Moss, the Georgia elections worker who recounted harassment and racist abuse for doing her job. (Only toward the end did Ms. Hutchinson describe her feelings about Mr. Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6: “As an American, I was disgusted.”)

But she was a familiar figure from stories of intrigue: The put-upon, underestimated underling who has seen and heard some things, and kept notes from the sidelines. (Mr. Trump, respondingon his online outlet Truth Social, complained that “I hardly know who this person, Cassidy Hutchinson, is.”)

Her testimony was the hearing equivalent of a bottle episode — the episode deep into a series’s run that breaks form to focus on a single character or incident. Indeed, at the start of the session, the committee vice chairwoman, Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, noted that where the previous hearings had focused on different aspects of the efforts to overturn the 2020 election, this one would bring several of those threads together.

That kind of narrative clarity is one reason the hearings have made for such well-executed television. Another is their attention to substance and style, combining their prosecutorial case with a consciousness of what piques viewers’ curiosity and keeps people talking afterward. (The committee has offered “previously on” recaps and teased coming attractions, like the piecemeal revelations of politicos who sought presidential pardons.)

Tuesday’s testimony was a triumph of style and substance in miniature. It was full of water-cooler bait, like the images of the 45th president of the United States overturning a White House tablecloth like an angry Real Housewife and going beast mode in his own limousine.

It was also visually conscious for a congressional hearing, from the White House floor plan that showed how close Ms. Hutchinson was to the executive action, to the mockumentary-dry “1 minute 36 seconds later” title card after Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, was asked if the Jan. 6 violence was justified. (He took the Fifth.)

But all this was in the service of a bigger and deeply serious through-line: The argument that the Jan. 6 attack, far from being a spontaneous outburst of rage, was the bloody climax of an attempt to throw out a democratic election, which could have succeeded (and could be repeated, more successfully, in the future).

Ms. Hutchinson’s part of the story was, on the one hand, a flabbergasting behind-the-scenes tell-all. On the other, it was a self-contained, single-episode narrative of Mr. Trump, desperate to stay in power, essentially trying to lead an armed private militia to Congress.

Barring further surprises, the committee now takes a midseason hiatus until after the July 4 holiday. It has left its viewers with quite a story to chew on over the break. The price of success, of course, is raising the bar, and it remains to be seen whether the hearings’ final run can pay off the buildup, or whether it can spur actual political or legal action.

But this installment? It was a beast.

James Poniewozik is The Times’s chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He previously spent 16 years with Time magazine as a columnist and critic.

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