Two from Pivot: ‘Raising McCain,’ ‘Jersey Strong’

Brooke Barnett and Jayda Jacques, seen at this summer's TCA press tour, star in the new Pivot docu-series, "Jersey Strong."
(Dan Steinberg / Invision for Pivot)

Pivot, which styles itself as a network for millennials, has two more original shows going up Saturday, to join the sweetly melancholy Australian coming-of-age, coming-out comedy “Please Like Me.” (The network is available locally on satellite and phone-based television systems, but not yet on cable.) Presumably, the idea is if you are over 30, you can just keep watching CBS.

Meghan McCain, daughter of senator John and two years shy of 30 herself, is the host of “Raising McCain,” a sort of roving stunt-documentary-cum-talk-show that proposes to “dig deep into the issues that matter most to our generation.” That is not quite the case -- the show flits butterfly-like from point to point and features interviews in which McCain often talks more than the people she’s interviewing, creating an impression of abundance without offering much of substance. But as a kind of personality-driven Young Person’s Guide to Whatever, it is not without charm or the odd thing that is interesting to know: the United States ranks 78th in the world in female representation in legislatures; the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by 2017 there will be 10,000 commercial drones flying around the country.

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With her crew and producers on camera with her much of the time, it has something of the pitch-meeting vibe of “TMZ,” mixed with the personalized news-adventuring of HBO’s “Vice,” a televisionification of the hipster media brand. It also has the staginess of a reality show, with a kind of narrative laid in to each episode, centered around McCain’s search for “answers”: McCain and journalist friend Mike Moynihan go head to head in a “Privacy Smackdown” to see who can find out the most about the other; McCain is worried about a speech she has to give to high school students (a clock ticks down the days). The show would like you to imagine that these things arise spontaneously between the host, her producers, crew and friends as they hang in their Little Italy clubhouse; but it is obviously all highly managed.

McCain, who got known as a contrary Republican voice during her father’s run for the presidency -- she is socially liberal, and moderately conservative (which counts as contrary, presently) on everything else -- has a sparky, un-self-conscious presence, but the structure of the show, in which her opinions at the top of the show will have been transformed by the end, its go-here-go-there pacing and suppression of nuance does her adisservice; it makes her seem unformed and uninformed and less serious than she might.

Indeed, the premise of the show -- in which the host takes a step toward enlightenment -- builds in a certain naivete. “I don’t think privacy exists anymore, and I don’t really care,” she says at the beginning of an episode and at theme; by the end, she is worried how “the Internet and police and anyone everywhere can monitor our every move.”

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“I don’t know what being a feminist means anymore and I don’t even know if I consider myself a feminist,” she says at the top of the what-means-feminism episode. (That old bra-burning canard is still hanging around among the younger folk, peskily.) “I like wearing makeup, I like wearing push-up bras and sometimes I dress slutty on Halloween? Am I a feminist?” In the end, after some brief encounters (with a Democratic New York City councilwoman, some adult-film workers, a Navy SEAL), she says, “I wish more women would get behind the term ‘feminism’ but I can’t be a hypocrite because I didn’t know if I could get behind it at the beginning of this episode.” But she will call herself a feminist the same way she calls herself a Republican, she declares, and if you don’t like it, tough.

“Jersey Strong” is a spin off from “Brick City,” the Peabody-winning Sundance Channel “Wire”-like multi-thread documentary about the life of Newark, N.J. (Cory Booker was in it.) (Evan Shapiro, who runs Pivot, came from Sundance.) It has been advertised as a Romeo and Juliet story, between reformed Blood Jayda Jacques and reformed Crip Creep Evans, who are engaged with two kids (one is hers from a previous relationship). They are Romeo and Juliet after a few years and a few miles, in other words. But the show is really balanced on the lives of two women, Jacques and Brooke Barnett. Their stories are mostly tangential but parallel: Jayda mentors young girls at risk; Barnett is a criminal defense attorney who once helped Jacques stay out of jail, working with disadvantaged clients. Each struggles with relationships and kids. (Brooke is in a relationship with another woman, Maggie Voelkel, who runs the office and whose two children they co-parent).

Like a reality show, it casts its leads as characters in a drama, and arranges to accompany them into certain situations for narrative profitability. (Both women have what is technically called Star Power.) But the approach is less intrusive or sensational than such shows usually are, and one feels generally that one is partaking of life lived not just for the viewer’s benefit -- lives, too, that are surprising in their details, where television, scripted or unscripted, most often tends to drift toward whatever reinforces stereotype.

Partly, this has to do with the production values -- the show looks good, the photography pays its subjects respect and lets you enter into the production. These lives, whatever their challenges, look rich. You look and think, “This is not how I would have imagined it.”