Most people who watch Showtime’s new miniseries The Loudest Voice will go in knowing quite a bit about its protagonist. Though he started in daytime TV, Roger Ailes made his name as a ruthlessly effective media strategist for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In 1996, after a bad breakup with NBC, he joined forces with Rupert Murdoch to found Fox News. Over the next two decades, Ailes became a household name–not just because of the success of his startlingly partisan network, but also because he was exiled from his empire in 2016 amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. He died at home the following spring.
It’s a Shakespearean tale that, as Ailes would have sensed, makes for captivating TV: a man who rode base urges to unparalleled political influence was ultimately destroyed by those same appetites. Based on Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 biography The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News–and Divided a Country, the adaptation opens at the beginning of Ailes’ reign. Each of the seven episodes covers a critical year for Fox News and its increasingly powerful–and paranoid–leader, played by Russell Crowe in a fat suit and pounds of latex makeup. Even the casting was a gimmick, given that Crowe’s anger problem is at least as notorious as Ailes’.
But there’s nothing cheap about the show. A premiere scripted by Spotlight writer-director Tom McCarthy (also an executive producer) sets a talky, thoughtful tone for a saga that needs no embellishment. Without glossing over Ailes’ slimiest deeds, a roster of directors including prestige-TV standbys Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Jeremy Podeswa (Game of Thrones) exercises enough restraint to avoid silliness. Crowe, a world-class bellower, only occasionally flips the switch from whispery, methodical creepiness to full-on scenery chomping. The result is an elegant mix of character study, workplace drama and political thriller.
Does The Loudest Voice offer revelations about Fox News that we couldn’t have gleaned from Sherman’s work or absorbed simply by living for decades in a world where Ailes both made news and shaped it? Not really. And that lack of new information has some critics dismissing the miniseries as pointless. (“The Loudest Voice really sticks it to Roger Ailes, who is still dead and doesn’t care what anyone thinks,” a Washington Post headline cracked.)
Yet this reaction ignores the unique power of visual storytelling. Knowing the facts isn’t the same as watching one man oscillate from political kingmaker to brutal boss to devoted husband to sexual predator; the latter forces you, with every frame, to consider how those Wikipedia headings add up to a life. The Loudest Voice is thorough in its efforts to make every facet of Ailes’ personality make sense in the context of his biography.
It isn’t the only high-profile show this year to take on real, difficult history in ways that push our collective understanding of them forward. As nonfiction and docudrama proliferate on TV, miniseries as different as Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly and HBO’s Chernobyl are putting faces to previously unseen victims and forcing public reckonings with tragedies that have been in the news for decades. Viewers, for their part, seem more eager than ever before to have those conversations.
For as long as each has existed, TV and film have excelled at turning the cultural conversation to under-discussed historical events and contemporary issues. Alex Haley’s novel Roots was a best seller before it came to television in 1977, but it was the miniseries that fueled a national dialogue about black history. Documentaries have changed harmful corporate policies (Bowling for Columbine, Blackfish) and standards of mental-health care (Titicut Follies). It was Spotlight, and its Oscar win, that inscribed the Boston Globe team that uncovered the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal in the canon of American heroes. On the other hand: the Ku Klux Klan had been defunct for decades before D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation revived it. In the realm of nonfiction, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will helped sell the Nazi agenda.
But TV viewers’ insatiable appetites for serious, politically engaged and potentially actionable retellings of familiar true stories feels like something new. Surviving R. Kelly, along with Leaving Neverland’s profile of a pair of Michael Jackson accusers, are extensions of the #MeToo movement and the true-crime trend. Accusations that R. Kelly sexually abused underage girls had followed the R&B star for the better part of two decades, yet it took a miniseries that interviewed many of his alleged victims to finally make his record label drop him and prosecutors to start building new cases against him. Though Jackson is dead, Neverland not only reshaped his legacy but also disrupted plans for TV programs, a musical and other tributes planned to coincide with the 10th anniversary of his death.
It isn’t just documentary series that have moved the needle in this way. Soon after the May debut of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix drama When They See Us, which follows the five black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, sex-crimes prosecutor turned novelist Linda Fairstein (the show’s villain, played by Felicity Huffman) was dropped by her publisher and agent. Despite penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed that called the show an “outright fabrication,” she also resigned from several nonprofit boards. To further bridge the gap between fact and fictionalization, Oprah interviewed the real Central Park Five for the follow-up special When They See Us Now.
This spring’s surprise hit Chernobyl may be the best example of viewers’ newfound eagerness to reopen historical wounds. HBO buried the impressive but relentlessly bleak miniseries about the Soviet nuclear meltdown on Mondays, only to watch its audience swell to 6 million, a huge number for a premium-cable show. Russia was so rattled by its impact that a state TV network plans to air its own version that will apparently implicate an American spy in the tragedy. And audiences aren’t just thinking about Chernobyl; they’re also visiting the real site in droves. Whether Americans see parallels to existential threats like climate change or to Russia’s potential to cause worldwide harm, the show’s vision of government ignorance, incompetence and malice clearly resonated.
Popular entertainment always serves some kind of larger societal function, even if it’s pure escapism. Among this new crop of miniseries, some of those preoccupations, from #MeToo to race and the criminal-justice system, are obvious. But on a less conscious level, these shows channel widespread political frustrations, at a time when so much of the public discourse revolves around politics. Donald Trump played a role in the Central Park Five saga, agitating for the boys to get the death penalty. He’s present in spirit throughout Chernobyl, in the form of leaders who disregard science. And I’m not the first to observe that #MeToo is, in part, a way of channeling anger at his relative immunity to allegations like columnist E. Jean Carroll’s recent claim that he sexually assaulted her in a Bergdorf’s dressing room.
Though we’ve been hearing about their subjects in the news for years, if not studying them in history classes, it seems that watching these stories unfold in a visual medium is what nudges them into a realm of coherent memory–whether that means protesting or vacationing in a nuclear evacuation zone. Beyond showing us real, if fictionalized, people and events of which we have only secondhand knowledge, these shows engage us with them through a narrative that makes us feel we’re observing and drawing our own conclusions. Even if it’s an illusion–every creator has an agenda, after all–that sense of independence is crucial in an atmosphere of partisanism, fake news and information overload. These shows cut through the noise in the same way cell-phone videos of police brutality do; they make us witnesses. (Which explains why When They See Us is such a powerful title.)
As it happens, our increasing need to see before we can believe has a lot to do with Roger Ailes, whose purposeful conflation of news, opinion and conspiracy theories played no small part in making Americans across the political spectrum instinctively question what the media frames as truth. And that’s what makes The Loudest Voice–with its holistic, relatively understated depiction of a personality prone to caricature–effective. In weaving Ailes’ neuroses and the misdeeds they fueled together with the rise of Fox News until the network becomes a mirror of the man, the show does more than stick it to the dead. It demonstrates how one person’s cynicism and paranoia reshaped a nation. Seeing it happen may be the first step in finding an antidote.
This appears in the July 08, 2019 issue of TIME.