‘The New Yorker Presents’ Review: Amazon Brings Magazine’s Best Stories to Life

Alex Gibney succeeds in creating s series that captures the best of the fabled publication

Last Updated: February 15, 2016 @ 7:57 PM

Hey, smartypants, do like reading “the New Yorker” — or at least letting other people think you do — but don’t necessarily want to bother with all that reading? Well, Amazon has some good news for you. Now you can just sit back and watch. That may sound a bit facetious and snooty, but that’s what Amazon’s latest digital series, “The New Yorker Presents,” basically is. And it totally works.

The series, from documentary rock star Alex Gibney‘s Jigsaw Productions, takes familiar features and sections of the fabled magazine and brings them to artfully produced, HD life in brief, easily digestible snippets — arguably shorter than the magazine articles themselves. At times the rapid-fire nature — jumping from a look inside a Manhattan milliner’s shop to the sight of a cartoon coming to life to a conversation with performance artist Marina Abramovic — can come off as all-too-calculatingly engineered for the YouTube generation short attention span, but for the most part the pace feels appropriately swift. The mini-docs are able to delve deep enough into a subject to entertain and educate without overstaying their welcome.

Speaking of length, the show’s half-hour format does a lot to recommend itself to viewers and not seem too daunting an investment of both time and brain-space. It all feels inherently easily digestible, and the hopscotching through topics keeps things fun and effervescent. A single episode can cover a wealth of topics — for instance, opening with a look at how elevators shape cities and ending with a meditation on the explicit art of Tom of Finland — without feeling rushed or in need of Ritalin. The profile of the magazine itself helps to attract some top-notch talent, both in front of and behind the camera, and whoever makes the narration-less snippets on small business and slices of life around New York City — like a look inside the projection booth at the Film Forum — does a fantastic job of setting the tone.

The secret weapon of the series, though, is the cartoons — much like the magazine itself, honestly, and I say this as someone who spent his childhood flipping past the boring text each week in search of the next hand-drawn bit of grown-up humor. In teasingly brief snippets, the cartoonists themselves pull back the curtain, showing the steps and layers of work that go into the magazine’s signature humor pieces, ending in with the joke itself before dissolving into a pointillist cascade.

If there is anything the series as a whole is lacking, it’s an overall editorial voice, a narrative thrust — the kind of thing the simple, physical covers of a magazine can help provide. There is no solid identity outside of the New Yorker’s, no sense of what to expect from one episode to the next. That can be exhilarating while flipping through these first batches of episodes, but it can leave the viewer a bit anxious as to what’s to come. But maybe that’s unavoidable.

Now, if they could just incorporate a “Current Cinema” section featuring Anthony Lane breezing through some catty opinions on the latest film releases, it would be absolutely perfect.