My Favorite Murder · Cosby · Prince Andrew
Can W. Kamau Bell separate the artist from the art? Should we?
We Need to Talk About Cosby is a masterful look at a serial rapist, but more than that, it’s a true-crime docuseries that only a comedian could produce. The four-episode show from W. Kamau Bell aired its first episode Sunday night, with subsequent episodes appearing every Sunday. All four are available on Showtime’s streaming platform, but I don’t recommend it as a binge.
That’s not because it’s not a remarkable accomplishment, because it is. It’s because Bell constructs the horrors of what Bill Cosby did — what he likely got away with — so deftly, and so engagingly (I know that’s weird to say, but its true) that you don’t realize you’re being buried under this incredible weight of the pain Cosby has wrought until you come up for air.
If this were in the hands of a more humorless director (like, I dunno, MAYBE BERLINGER), you’d be bloody and bruised from the first five minutes. But Bell takes a subtler approach, devoting the bulk of the first episode to reminding us why Bill Cosby is such an important part of the culture, layering clips of his most iconic routines with snips from his multitudes of TV and film roles.
And then slowly, before you realize it, Bell starts weaving in lines from Cosby’s earliest days that seem to indicate a, shall we say, very loose relationship with the concept of consent, and a more than passing interest in drugs that make women comply. “But what comic back then didn’t say fucked-up stuff about women?” you ask yourself, starting to wonder if the show is unfairly stacking the deck.
Then, 47 minutes in, we hear from a victim. And then you realize that you’ve been making excuses for Cosby in your head the way everyone else did, the first (second? Third?) time he was accused. You’re complicit. As a critic, I had to stand back and admire Bell for how he did it. As a woman, I felt ashamed.
But, again, Bell so smoothly pivots the viewer away from that shame before it turns into a hamhanded, last act of Natural Born Killers, “we are all guilty here” thing. Instead, Bell seems to say, he gets it, we were all taken in — and that’s not our fault, it’s Cosby’s, for abusing our trust. It’s a message we hear again and again in the show, as victims continue to speak, expressing shame and rage and, even now, blaming themselves for their assaults.
You want to tell them that you get it, that we we all bought the same bad bill of goods, for a multitude of reasons — from wanting to support his groundbreaking upheaval of the racist Reagan-era narrative of Black America, to just loving I Spy or his bit on God speaking to Noah.
So when I say that this is a show that only a comedian could have created, that build is a lot of what I mean — the show is like a brilliant, sneaky standup set where when you get to the end you realize there was no other ending but this. (And I’m referring to the show’s real, unplanned ending, not even the one that Bell likely had in mind when he set out to do this show.)
I’m also talking about a lot of the expected true-crime things that Bell doesn’t do, like attempting to figure out “root causes” in an effort to “explain what made him do the things he did.” Biographical elements like the slaying of Cosby’s son are acknowledged, but aren’t used as an excuse or reason for his crimes. That’s what a traditional crime doc would have done, that’s the beat that’s expected.
Bell, freed from those tropes, instead is able to make this show about Cosby truly victim-centric, in a way that other docs about compelling central figures only make a gesture toward doing. And, to Bell’s credit, he rarely centers himself in the narrative, which I suspect some of the show’s producers would have liked.
Things get less sure-handed when Bell tackles all of rape culture in the show’s later hours. Not to say he shouldn’t acknowledge that the world was and is built on the marginalization of women…but when we only have four hours, that’s tough to do as a drive-by. Still, it’s that section that had me roll back to re-listen to a quote from Sonalee Rashatwar, a sexual trauma therapist who was one of many talking heads in the series. Cosby was “seen as America’s dad,” Rashatwar said, “but America has a rape problem. America’s dads have a rape problem.”
Rashatwar’s not wrong, but that’s also a big assertion Bell’s just dropping and leaving there. A little more time, contextualizing that revelation, could have helped that point stick the landing.
Still, We Need to Talk About Cosby is such an important piece of work that I expect it’ll be scrutinized by folks who want to create true-crime properties for years to come. (And if not, please, add it to the syllabus.) It’s a how-to on tackling uncomfortable, brutal, and impossible-to-neatly resolve crime stories without alienating your audience in the first hour but also without resorting to glibness or exploitation. I am a sadder, less settled person for watching it. It also left me wiser and more self-aware.
I hope you watch it, but I also hope you do so with more room to breathe than I did. Let each episode marinate in your head. Watch it with a friend, and talk it out over egg sandwiches or something. This show is too good, and too powerful, to consume in one gulp. — EB
Less than six months after My Favorite Murder went on a controversial, months-long sabbatical, it was scooped up by Amazon in an advertising/distribution deal. Sarah — a person far more experienced in the area of creating a property that drives oft-furious investment than I am — considered the popular podcast’s plight last fall. That’s when listeners (many of whom members of the show’s $40/year “Fan Cult” community) took to social media with complaints after founders Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark went on a multi-month break, without explaining the reasons behind that break to some listeners’ satisfaction..
As Sarah wrote then:
This is the eternal tension of popular internet properties, in my experience: between the members of that property’s community, who often attach to it and to one another in an emotional and personal way; and the property’s creators, who may feel bonded to the community but whose priority is the content — and for whom that content is, in the end, a job.
A job they love and take seriously, yes, but still a job. Where is the line between the kind of belonging that a podcast like MFM (or Crime Writers On…, or any of my podcasts, or Television Without Pity) tries to create among true-crime consumers, that feeling of My People, of belonging to a place or a group; and the kind of belonging that suggests entitlement and ownership?
What behind-the-scenes decisions about scheduling, time commitment, community-building, et al. are none of the listener’s business, and which ones speak directly TO the business as an income generator for the creators?
Though at the time, some MFM listeners said that they didn’t expect the show to ever return, it did (it was ranked #5, globally, on Chartable as of Monday, and is #14 on Apple’s U.S. chart). And now it’s apparently poised to generate more income than ever. Bloomberg reports that Amazon bought “exclusive advertising and distribution rights” for MFM and the rest of the shows in podcast parent network Exactly Right Media, including The Murder Squad, Lady to Lady and This Podcast Will Kill You.
This agreement is unlikely to prompt any immediate changes for listeners, other than that Amazon Music and Wondery users (in case you forgot, Amazon owns Wondery now) will now get episodes a week before everyone else, and the only ads listeners will hear on the podcast, regardless of which platform they use platform, will come from Amazon.
Hot Pod’s Ashley Carman has some analysis of the deal, the terms of which were not disclosed. Amazon’s motive for the arrangement, Carman writes, is “to bring you inside its world while at the same time bolstering its ad business.” Is the chance to get MFM a week early likely to prompt you to move from whatever podcast app you use now to one owned by Amazon? If not MFM, what show would make you switch? — EB
The second part of Vanity Fair’s “Can you believe how clumsily Prince Andrew managed the Epstein thing?” series dropped last week, and boy is it a master class in Monday-morning quarterbacking. The first installment, which pubbed back in December, focused on “How the Only Known Photo of Prince Andrew and the Pedophile Happened,” a paparazzi-centric yarn of how the the 11-year-old photo was snapped — and which suggests that Ghislaine Maxwell might have been one of the debt-riddled royal’s closest friends.
Part two, “Inside Prince Andrew’s Misguided Bid to Explain Away Epstein,” moved late last week. Mark Seal’s densely reported longread doesn’t appear to include any wildly new revelations, but it pulls a lot of tabloid here-and-there material, plus new interviews and analysis, to paint a portrait of a person unprepared for the level of scrutiny we all could face if the news cycle called for it. The story leads up to his now well-known appearance on Newsnight, which the BBC has helpfully posted to YouTube in full.
Here’s a snip of the behind-the-scenes report:
Prince Andrew said he had just one goal: to clear the air, tell his version of events, and set the record straight. “He just wanted to push back through us at the newspaper coverage,” says Maitlis.
Those who opposed the interview—reportedly including Sarah Ferguson—were overruled. Andrew, it appeared, was actually considering the unthinkable: submitting to an on-camera interview without conditions—“nothing like, ‘You can only have 10 minutes to ask me about Ghislaine and Epstein, and that’s all,’” says one astonished royal observer.
There was just one detail that needed to be resolved before they could proceed. As Andrew put it, he had to “seek approval from higher up.”
“It dawns on us that he means the queen herself,” Maitlis would write.
At eight the next morning came a message to call the office of the Duke of York.
“The queen, it seems, is on board.”
This is a very inside-baseball piece on the mechanics of the journalism behind the interview, which elicited those since-mocked details on Andrew’s alleged inability to sweat and his claim that “I don’t know where the bar is in Tramps. I don’t drink. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a drink in Tramps whenever I was there.” According to Seal, “When a transcript was released to the media the next day, even the hard-boiled hacks from Fleet Street gasped.”
If you’re planning on following the civil trial — which, as of this writing, is expected to move forward in front of a New York jury in late 2022 — both of these reports are great prep work for the case to come. And if you’re not, they’re worth a read just for the juice you get about how every outlet from the tabloids to the BBC was on this story for years, a prepared stance that suggests that editors and reporters across the U.K. have long suspected that Andrew was guilty of misconduct, and have been seeking confirmation for quite some time. — EB
Wednesday on Best Evidence: True-crime career counseling?
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There aren't any podcasts that would make me listen to all podcasts on Amazon or Spotify exclusively, because I really like Podcast Addict. But Heavyweight recently moved to Spotify only (it's a Gimlet podcast, owned by Spotify now) and I listen to it on Spotify because that's my only choice, and it's one of my favorite shows. I expect this sort of thing to happen more and more often, because capitalism. It sucks, but I can't really blame podcasters for taking the lucrative deals. It just makes me feel more annoyed with Spotify and Amazon.
So many thoughts: 1. I just started watching Cosby last night and thank goodness you told me not to binge it. I made it through the first episode and was wiped out. Had to listen to some P.G. Wodehouse to recover a bit. 2. It has got to be odd for you content creators to strike that balance between creating a product and creating a community. I know many of my friends and I said (vis-a-vis TWoP), “these are my people.” And we meant it. I just think we need to keep reminding ourselves that these are our virtual people - that may not always transfer (if ever) to IRL people. It’s tough to remember that when you spend a lot of time with a podcast; those hosts are in your ears constantly. 3. I can’t think of a podcast that would make me change platforms long-term. I might do it short-term for something extraordinary that was 10 or so episodes. But long-term, no way. 4. Prince Andrew should have listened to his ex-wife on this one. That interview was a total disaster and did more than anything to convince people that he’s a bit of a perv who wasn’t above using his station to get whatever he liked. Epstein got his hands on a live one, there. Just because you can do whatever you want with zero repercussions doesn’t mean you should. You can listen to your better angels.