The Impeachment Show Fleshes Out Its Back Story

The New York Times Entertainment 4 days ago

More and more often, absorbing TV serials don’t just stand on their own. There are ancillary shows, explainers, deep dives for the superfans. The HBO mini-series “Chernobyl” inspired a successful podcast exploring the history behind the dramatized events. “The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones” and Bravo’s reality series have inspired talk shows devoted to analyzing and theorizing about them.

The first day of the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment was, in its way, that kind of companion piece for the House Intelligence Committee hearings that preceded it.

That earlier series, unfolding over two weeks in November, provided the text for the four constitutional scholars featured on Wednesday — three invited by Democrats, one by Republicans — to chew over. The November hearings introduced compelling characters like the fact witnesses William B. Taylor Jr. and Fiona Hill. They set up story lines and stakes and established the setting. They had elements of courtroom-style drama, including when President Trump injected himself into the proceedings via Twitter.

Those hearings were the story. Wednesday’s was like the detailed recap: a historical, legal and earnestly wonky breakdown of why it matters if the president pressured the government of Ukraine to kneecap his political rival, and an argument over whether the charge was yet substantiated.

The Democrats running the hearing even borrowed a familiar format from recap series, like “Talking Dead,” and sports postgame shows, playing back video highlight clips and asking their experts to analyze them: Gordon D. Sondland testifying that “everyone was in the loop,” President Trump declaring that “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

It was as if to say: Here’s what you saw previously on “Impeachment” — now let’s dig in to why you should care.

It was a program designed not to detail recent history — timelines, phone calls — but to pull back into legal theory and historical context. Way back, in some cases, with references to numerous founding fathers, Sir Thomas More and John Mordaunt, a 17th-century English viscount who faced impeachment.

The discussion assumed an audience that was willing to journey deep into the weeds and nerd out on the Constitution, like a political-historical podcast minus the Blue Apron ads.

Which is not to say there wasn’t drama. Early on, Pamela S. Karlan, a professor at Stanford, told Representative Doug Collins, Republican of Georgia, that she was “insulted” at his implication that the academic experts appearing Wednesday could not have had enough time to read the transcripts from the November hearings. Later, she clashed with Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, the reliably explosive geyser of the Republican impeachment opposition, over her contributions to Democratic candidates.

Other witnesses drew the stakes for democracy starkly. Michael J. Gerhardt, from the University of North Carolina, said, “If what we are talking about is not impeachable, then nothing is impeachable.” Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, the Republicans’ invitee, suggested that a rushed impeachment would be inconsistent with “the rule of law.”

There was more continuity with last month’s hearings in the committee members’ questions, many of which were of the more-a-comment-than-a-question variety. Like a network spinoff, they even brought over returning characters from the original series, including Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who reprised his car-alarm barrage of excoriation for Democrats and flattery of President Trump’s Electoral College margin.

By and large, though, the first day of the judiciary hearings was a less histrionic one. Members of the Democratic majority wanted to give the proceedings gravity and historical weight, using most of their questions to ask their experts to weigh in on the historical scale and enormity of the offenses Mr. Trump is accused of and only occasionally challenging Mr. Turley.

The Republican minority, meanwhile, seemed to want to cast the proceedings as so dull that the viewing audience would tune out. (This is the only show on TV half of whose cast is praying for its cancellation.) Representative Ben Cline of Virginia imagined a family watching the hearing at home and mistaking it for a “rerun.” And Mr. Collins, in his opening remarks, said that “America will see why most people don’t go to law school.”

The morning TV audience did go to law school, however, for at least a few hours. (The broadcast networks cut away early in the afternoon on the East Coast.)

This may not have pleased those viewers, or commentators, who measure their congressional hearings by the bombshell. But for anyone interested in a deep-dive TV lesson on the roots and theory of impeachment, class was in session. You just had to dodge the occasional spitball.

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