A.J. Bauer is visiting assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU and co-editor of News on the Right. Reece Peck is assistant professor of media culture at College of Staten Island (CUNY) and author of Fox Populism. Each week, they'll recap the new Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice.
This series begins with a promise: Roger Ailes will die. Face down and alone on a mirror-like floor. Out of reach, a walking cane and spilled pill bottle -- clearly marked Cyklokapron, so you know it's not a suicide.
The Loudest Voice isn't here to change your mind about Ailes, the Republican political operative and television producer who built Fox News into a cable powerhouse before succumbing, professionally, to allegations of sexual harassment in 2016 and, mortally, to complications of hemophilia in 2017.
"I know what people are going to say about me," the disembodied voice of Ailes (Russell Crowe) begins. "I can pretty much pick the words for you. Right-wing. Paranoid. Fat. And I'm not going to argue."
Neither is The Loudest Voice.
The first episode, "1996," introduces us to Ailes (alive this time) eating a syrup-doused stack of pancakes at a diner in late 1995. "Happy Holidays," says the waitress as she brings Ailes his check. "Merry Christmas," Ailes retorts smugly -- a nod to the culture war still ravaging this country, as though it began as simply as a bacon belch.
Ailes is on his way to a meeting with General Electric CEO Jack Welch (John Finn) to negotiate a loophole in his noncompete agreement after an unspecified human resources investigation mandated his termination from the GE-owned cable network CNBC. After some pleading on the patio of Welch's estate, Ailes secures a clause allowing him to work for the yet-to-be-announced Fox in a scene neatly designed to foreshadow both his impending rise and inevitable fall.
This scene also exemplifies the limitations of the show's great-man narrative approach, which foregrounds the rooms where decisions are made at the expense of the historical context that informs those decisions and gives them significance. Ailes' swagger is pronounced, and supposedly compelling, but there is little evidence presented in support of Welch's claims that Ailes is "a hell of a producer" and "one of the best PR guys I've ever met."
For the opener of a seven-part miniseries adaptation of Gabriel Sherman's 500+ page footnoted biography of Ailes, we are provided only a brief executive summary of his lifework, rattled off in an appropriately Australian inflection by Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) during a 1996 press conference announcing Fox News -- "producer of the No. 1 rated Mike Douglas Show at 26, Nixon media advisor at 28 ... the preeminent Republican strategist of his generation, adviser to three presidents and countless members of Congress ... producer [who] in two short years ... has built CNBC into a world-class news organization." As for motivation, background, personality, depth of character? Our existing assumptions are enlisted to fill in the gaps: "Right-wing. Paranoid. Fat."
Instead of a complex character study, this episode follows Ailes on a mad dash of dinner dates and meetings as he rushes to assemble a launch team capable of getting Fox News on-air before the cable news market became too crowded. Nominally gunning for CNN -- and maneuvering to outflank upstart MSNBC and a rumored Disney-ABC News network -- Ailes' efforts are beset instead by News Corporation's Aussie contingent, personified in Ian Rae (Jamie Jackson).
The problem with this Ailes vs. Aussies plotline is that it draws too stark a distinction between ideology and style. In the episode's defining scene, a female Australian News Corp executive outlines a strategy that would have Fox News mirror the tabloid stylings of Murdoch's most infamous print holdings The Sun and the New York Post. The aim was to appeal to the lowest common cultural denominator, to the widest possible audience.
Asked by Murdoch for his thoughts, Ailes chides the woman and unveils his grand vision. He accuses the Aussies of a broadcast mentality. "Cable's different," Ailes intones. "Cable is about one thing: niche. The loyalty of a passionate few." Asked what niche he had in mind, Ailes replies, "Well, I think it's conservatives."
But to assert that Ailes was the sole visionary behind Fox News' conservatism is to ignore the political tendencies of Murdoch's other media properties -- including the Sun and Post. (Murdoch hired Ailes, after all.)
Likewise, portraying Ailes as a pure ideologue downplays his true innovation at Fox -- recognizing a niche audience, white American Christian conservatives, who had been conditioned for decades by the modern conservative movement to feel underserved by the cultural production of journalistic and cultural elites on the coasts. Ailes didn't achieve conservative news success at the expense of populist style, his attention to populist style was the very basis for the conservative news that Fox would brand "Fair and Balanced."
We are given hints of this admixture. When Ailes turns off the sound while evaluating talent tapes, for example. Or when he sees potential in that "bloody shock jock" Sean Hannity (Patch Darragh) for coining offensive quips, like "limp-wristed lefty," despite his otherwise paltry debating skills. But too little time in this first episode is spent in these rooms where television production really happens, just as we learn too little about the theatrical and entertainment industry insights that made Ailes such a transgressive newsman.
Critics have frequently compared The Loudest Voice to Adam McKay's 2018 Dick Cheney film, Vice (now streaming on Hulu). It makes sense: both feature stunning, latex-covered transformations of leading actors into shlubby right-wing authoritarians. But Vice used absurdity and irreverence to play with the emotions of its presumably liberal audience. Other than having Ailes mistake Montell Jordan for "Wu Tang Friends," there is too little levity in the premiere episode to balance out the looming sense of impending sexual violence that permeates every scene Ailes shares with a woman.
The idea of a Matt Lauer biopic is absurd enough to be parody-fodder; Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Annapurna Pictures are apparently making a film about Harvey Weinstein, but focusing on the reporters who uncovered his abuses. A biopic on Roger Ailes is similarly risky -- having to toe the line between productively challenging viewers' prevailing understandings of Ailes and Fox while understanding many viewers don't think their views of Ailes' behavior needs to be questioned. So far, however, The Loudest Voice eschews that tightrope altogether in favor of confirmation: the show relies on its viewers' knowledge of Fox's political bias and their disgust with Ailes' alleged sexual predation in order to dramatize, well, Fox's political bias, and Ailes' sexual predation. In this way, The Loudest Voice replicates the prevailing critique of Fox News itself: it preaches to the choir about the perils and hypocrisy of choir preaching.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is part of the CBS Corporation, Showtime's parent company.)