Meghan McCain deserves credit for what her new TV show Raising McCain, premiering this Saturday, is not: a reality series.* McCain would be a reality TV natural. She’s indefatigable, unembarrassable, fun to watch. She likes a fight and is not particularly cautious about what flies out of her mouth. If she wanted a reality series, she almost certainly could have had one, and it probably would have aired on a channel that, unlike Pivot, a newborn network for millennials, is carried by most major cable providers. Instead, McCain has opted to create something more civic-minded, a news hour that makes a good faith effort to “Dig deep into the issues that matter most to our generation.” So, respect to Meghan McCain for aiming higher than various Palins. And thus concludes the complimentary portion of this review.
McCain first appears in Raising McCain wearing a plaid shirt and the black, slouchy ski cap all the baristas in all the pour-over coffee places in all the land were wearing this morning, cursing and trying to nail a buck’s head into the wall of her set. McCain’s vaguely iconoclast vibe established, the show sets out to explore “privacy,” a subject McCain is not worried about at all. If people want to stalk her on Twitter she’s fine with that because “I don’t think privacy exists anymore, and I don’t care,” like it’s a discontinued line of Starbucks lattes.
McCain drafts journalist Michael Moynihan, a colleague from her Daily Beast days who’s much more concerned about privacy issues, to help her explore a smorgasbord of privacy-related topics. McCain interviews a woman whose ex-boyfriend disseminated naked pictures of her, flies a drone, briefly talks to a guy who made a documentary about terms-of-service agreements and tries to dig up dirt on Moynihan, all in a crammed 22 minutes. The questions she asks are broad, the answers she elicits vague. “Are we just fucked as a culture?” McCain asks at one point, not exactly a topic-specific query. Ultimately, McCain agrees that privacy matters. “At the beginning of this episode I was a cocky little shit,” she says in her wrap-up, “but I was wrong.”
This is the series’ structure: In each episode McCain learns something. As the show’s title promises, the series is educating her and, by extension, Pivot’s hoped-for young audience. A protagonist learning alongside the viewers is an effective storytelling technique, but only if there’s a higher, already educated intelligence operating off screen. On camera, it’s great to ask questions and play the naif, so long as someone off-camera knows where all those questions lead. Raising McCain doesn’t seem to have that guiding intelligence.
Raising McCain compares pretty unfavorably on this score to HBO’s Vice, another news program aimed at twentysomethings, of a more hipster-bro stripe. Vice expects that its viewers will be Googling wildly after, and maybe even while, watching it. It glosses complex issues like America’s relationship with North Korea for entertainment’s sake but with the added assumption that some audience members intrigued by Dennis Rodman’s trip there will set out to learn more. It wants to be a serious issue gateway drug, though as with gateway drugs, not everyone goes on to become a news addict. Raising McCain, in contrast, assumes that its potential audience, despite being forever on their smartphones, has no source of information other than Raising McCain. It goes broad and shallow (the educational preference of olds) instead of narrow and relatively deep (the educational preference of people who have grown up in a world with Wikipedia always around to supply broad and not-even-that-shallow background information). It’s a show for millennials, but it seems to think millennials live in an information vacuum instead of an information deluge.
Perhaps for fear of alienating people who don’t agree with her, McCain presents as many aspects of a topic as she can, offering up factoids and interviews without context or heft, giving viewers little bits of information about way too much. This strategy gets ludicrous in the second episode, about feminism. “I like wearing makeup and a push-up bra and I like to dress slutty on Halloween,” McCain says at the episode’s beginning. “Do I get to be a feminist anymore? I don’t know the answer to these questions.” She sets out to answer them, first, by reading a dictionary definition of “feminism” aloud.
McCain then performs a rushed round of interviews with a porn star, the proprietor of Fleshbot, and a female politician, as well as working out with a Navy Seal. It hazily emerges that McCain does think of herself as a feminist, but she never says this clearly. Instead the show devotes some time to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In without explaining who Sheryl Sandberg is or what leaning in means. (The book is just something “critics went bananas” over.) The only description comes from Jessica Bennett, the Lean In foundation’s editor-at-large, who, in a head-scratching sound bite says Sandberg’s contribution has been to “make feminism scalable.” Say what? Raising McCain would be a much better show if it had included that quote expecting its audience to Google it. But Raising McCain just included it because it sounded smart.
Correction, Sept. 13, 2013: This article previously misspelled Meghan McCain’s first name. (Return.)