When last we checked in on The Donald Trump Show, the absurdist political thriller that’s been airing nonstop on CNN for the past seven years, the program seemed to have gotten its groove back. A new character had been introduced, Cassidy Hutchinson, a Trump aide who told the January 6 committee that the former president had lashed out violently, including allegedly trying to commandeer the presidential SUV. Here was everything that had made The Donald Trump Show so great in the first place: the over-the-top drama, the scandal, the unpredictability of its main character.
Alas, one of the gripes that critics have most often leveled at the show is that it introduces new plotlines and then doesn’t do anything with them. So it was that as soon as she became a headline character, Hutchinson all but vanished, fading into the background like so many other interchangeable public servants who tried to take on Trump. Instead, the show’s latest season chose to focus on a less-than-compelling rivalry with Ron DeSantis and a third presidential run that even the actor playing Trump can’t muster any enthusiasm for. The once-bingeable drama seemed listless and adrift; more than one critic called for it to be canceled.
Well! That all changed in a hurry when a teaser last weekend revealed that Trump might be arrested in the next episode over his supposed hush money payment to Stormy Daniels — and in a devilish twist, it was Trump himself who made the reveal! After years of will-they-won’t-they legal drama that’s culminated only in a montage of a forlorn Rachel Maddow searching for Trump’s tax returns in the rain after Robert Mueller declined to indict, the writers now seem prepared to take Trump where they’ve never taken him before.
It’s worth pointing out that, at least by the show’s own lore, the charges seem specious. The Stormy imbroglio has been investigated by multiple agencies and prosecutors, including the Justice Department, all of whom have walked away empty-handed. But then The Donald Trump Show has always fallen somewhere between My Cousin Vinny and the courtroom scenes in The Exorcism of Emily Rose on the legal rigor spectrum. What matters for good wannabe-prestige TV is not the letter of the law; it’s the characters. And with this latest twist, the writers have set up a showdown that may prove among their most compelling yet.
The choice of the all-but-forgotten Alvin Bragg to bring the charges against Trump was nothing less than a stroke of creative genius. Think of it: Bragg, like Trump, is a born-and-bred New Yorker and an ambitious man, but the similarities end there. Bragg grew up in Harlem while Trump went into his father’s business of real estate; Bragg is obsessed with letting criminals off easy while Trump stands for law and order full stop. By putting these two on a collision course, the show has given Trump his greatest foil since the stern, phlegmatic, Boston-accented John Kelly in season three. The Trump lines practically write themselves: “I guess I’m the one guy Alvin Bragg wants to send to prison! I dunno! I dunno!”
Yet as a long-time watcher of The Donald Trump Show, I’m skeptical that this shocker can buoy the program back to its previous heights. Even shows with tried-and-true formulas run out of gas eventually, as daring risks come to feel more exhausting than innovative. And after seven seasons of The Donald Trump Show, it feels like we’ve hit that point. The program has tried to top itself so many times: two surreal presidential elections; two impeachments; the labyrinth that was the Robert Mueller investigation; a plague that killed millions of people; a riot at the Capitol building. Even the stakes of the Trump/Bragg dynamic pale in comparison to the almost-thermonuclear showdown with season two’s Kim Jong-un.
Yes, a revival of the Stormy Daniels drama would be an opportunity to bring back some of our favorite characters, including Trump’s jailed lawyer Michael Cohen, played to a T by John Cusack after repeatedly smashing himself in the head with a brick. But ultimately this twist feels less like it’s about good TV than said TV’s parent network. The Donald Trump Show, let’s not forget, is the most successful program in CNN history. Without it, the channel has little to offer beyond Bravo-style fluff like Real-Life Divas with Don Lemon and Kaitlan Collins and reboots like Not Parts Unknown with Stanley Tucci.
Yet corporate calculations aside, it may be time to admit the inevitable is upon us. There’s no shame in a show calling it quits before it gets stale, especially one that seems to think John Bolton is an audience draw.