Midway through the premiere episode of The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, host Tom Arnold, who recently filed a police report against The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett over an alleged scuffle the two got into, addresses one of several hidden cameras in a hotel room. “They could go to prison for life and be fined hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says of two “transparency activists” he’s about to meet to discuss audio recordings of Donald Trump saying awful things. A cut from another hidden camera then shows Arnold playing with, and nearly knocking over, a potted plant.
His “writing assistant” Jacob, monitoring the situation from a van parked outside the hotel, asks aloud, “What are you doing?” It’s a rather simple, though pointed, question for Arnold in this scene, but it also applies to The Hunt for the Trump Tapes as a whole. What is the 59-year-old comedian doing in his new series, exactly? The title offers a succinct description of what the Viceland show aims to do: uncover the many, long-rumored tapes of the president saying repugnant/possibly racist things. But is Arnold the right person for the job?
Unsurprisingly, he’s not, though Hunt recognizes this quite quickly and proceeds as if Arnold’s foray into gonzo journalism is more of an oblivious safari. Going back to the hotel room sequence, Jacob’s commentary there illustrates this point rather beautifully. “I don’t really understand. There’s some kind of disconnect here,” he says out in the van. “I’m here to surveil and protect him? If this gets out of hand, I can make some calls but I don’t know if it’s going to make much of a difference.” Meanwhile, the scene cuts to Arnold in the hotel room, making a jerk off motion toward the camera.
Therein lies the rub at the heart of Hunt, an eight-episode (the first two were made available for review) investigation that isn’t really an investigation at all. Yes, Arnold and his team manage to interview previous Apprentice contestant and magician Penn Jillette, who happily offers a few anecdotes from his time on the set with Trump. Yes, they also track down and confront the reality television star turned Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who refused to do a sit-down interview with Arnold for the program. These and other exchanges, planned and otherwise, add to the greater portrait that Hunt is trying to paint, but it turns out the painting looks more like Arnold than his intended subject.
In a way, all of this is by design. Arnold and his producing team, especially Jonathan Karsh and writer John Platt, both of whom hail from the world of reality television, surely knew that Hunt would probably never find a smoking gun. Or, at least Karsh and Platt knew this. As for Arnold, like Sacha Baron Cohen and many other politically-minded comedians, he has used Trump’s presidency to reinvigorate his career throughout the past couple of years. Some, like late night hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Samantha Bee, have seen this work to their advantage. Others, like Cohen, have seen viral moments turn into potential lawsuits.
So where does Arnold’s Hunt fall on this spectrum? The sheer ridiculousness of it all, be it the show itself or the comedian’s long-running promotional tour (which may or may not include the aforementioned pre-Emmys party fight with Burnett), pushes it far into Who Is America? territory. But unlike Cohen’s latest attempt to capitalize on the character-driven “gotchya” comedy that first made him famous, Arnold at least seems to be playing himself. The same cannot be said for everyone and everything else around him, from his “writing assistant” to the many houses he supposedly lives in, as teased by each episode’s cold open. The fake homes, which include a castle and a tower, are an all-too-obvious joke. Jacob’s sidekick-esque role also feels somewhat contrived, though more for the jokes strewn throughout each episode — as opposed to the titular “hunt.”
An important clue comes in the form of a Curb Your Enthusiasm reference in the show’s official logline, which describes it as a combination of Larry David’s program and the famously serious All the President’s Men. Hunt has far more Curb than President’s Men in it, and the logline itself admits as much. “As Arnold’s potentially quixotic search among the powerful people who may have or know of these tapes unfolds,” it reads, “the series becomes a funhouse mirror snapshot of our current media and political landscape.” Nix the “potentially” from “quixotic” and add political comedy to the “landscape” alluded to in the end and eureka! We’ve got a description of Arnold’s show (and his intentions) that is more accurate than its writers probably intended.
The first two episodes of ‘The Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold’ premiere tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET on Viceland.