Trigger Warning and Netflix's Love of Host-Driven Stories

Trigger Warning and Netflix's Love of Host-Driven Stories

The confrontational, sometimes Swiftian heart of Killer Mike's show aims to reach common ground by way of unvarnished agitation. Netflix

In the second episode of Netflix’s docuseries Trigger Warning , rapper Killer Mike meets with a group of Atlanta-area first graders who are eager to talk about what they want to be when they grow up. The answers are what they’ve seemingly been for decades—scientist, pediatrician, president—but Mike’s not here for aspirations. “You owe your parents not to dream big,” he says to them, all seriousness and conviction. “You owe it to your parents to dream practical and start making money as soon as you can. Like, you’re not going to be able to be president.”

The remarks would sound needlessly harsh if they weren’t, in part, a means to a more enlightened end. In this case, that enlightenment involves replacing conventional pedagogy with trade-focused schooling—and luring prospective (adult) students with what Killer Mike calls “vocational pornography.” Such is the confrontational, sometimes Swiftian heart of Trigger Warning , which aims to reach common ground by way of unvarnished agitation.

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Spread across six installments, each episode tackles a hot-button social, political, or racial issue via Mike’s radical, unorthodox approach to problem solving. (As half of rap duo Run the Jewels, he is no stranger to controversy; his choice attire is a t-shirt emblazoned with the message “Kill your masters.”) In the debut episode, “Living Black,” he endeavors to buying products exclusively from the black community for three days—only to find himself sleeping on a park bench one night due to the dearth of black-owned hotels in town. In subsequent episodes, Mike helps a local black gang (or “street fraternity,” as they style it) legally monetize its brand by creating a healthier alternative to soda (Crip-a-Cola!) and, in an effort to “destroy the myth of white Jesus,” founds a religion based on sleeping. (“I feel like that’s when we’re closest spiritually to whatever’s out there,” he says.) It is a show that aims for clever provocation—to educate and incite—but ultimately lands somewhere between illumination and shtick.

Trigger Warning doesn’t carry the typical sheen of a makeover show, but—like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo or Queer Eye before it—its framework is modeled on a before-after binary. Mike wants us to see our American dystopia for what it is: hypocritical, outdated, in need of renovation. A gang-branded soda might sound outrageous at first until you consider the larger historical context, and how biker gangs like Hell’s Angels have been able to trademark and profit off their image while mostly alluding public scrutiny. Why is it that we trumpet one organization but refuse to afford the same opportunity to the other? The answers warrant more nuance than a 30-minute episode allows, but Mike’s point is a valid one. And with Trigger Warning he’s taking a hammer to a system entrenched in racist dogmas that code our very ways of life. It’s simple, really: Mike wants to unsettle our notions of acceptability. As he exclaims in one episode, “Coca-Cola has killed a lot more motherfuckas than Crips.”

In a lot of ways, Trigger Warning is the sum of Netflix’s grand ambitions. The streaming company’s transformation into an all-seeing, for-everybody TV network irrevocably shifted the television landscape for good—what we watch, when and how we consume a given piece of content. Prestige-branded shows ( House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black ) were the result of the inaugural streaming gold rush that has since devolved into an era of simply “ fine TV .” (With its unmatched 11-figure budget, Netflix essentially goaded rival players like Hulu, Amazon and HBO into taking gambles on shows they typically would have passed on, a move that further saturates/suffocates the market.) Trigger Warning arises out of this second wave of post-prestige content secretion that we now find ourselves subject to. What’s more, the show itself sits at the center of Netflix’s current identity crisis as a tech company trying to become the most dominant TV enterprise in history.

Across Netflix’s span of cultural properties, there exists a more recent brand of politically-aware, socially-attuned, comedy-suffused host-driven shows that have defined the company’s era of streaming supremacy. There are the aforementioned lifehacking shows, which put a premium on domestic transformation as much as they do self-optimization. The Break with Michele Wolf and Patriot Act with Hasan Minaj extract the politics of the moment into stylishly smart orations on immigration policy and abortion rights—following the Daily Show -engineered model of the comedian as a pundit-oracle-friend. With Chelsea , Norm MacDonald Has a Show , and T he Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale Netflix applied a late-night talk format to its growing comedy war chest (yet another surprise outcome was Netflix’s cornering of the comedy market entirely).

Critic Emily Nussbaum once wrote that TV can’t help but mimic itself: “For its entire history, it’s been an imitative, self-conscious medium.” In part, Trigger Warning is a byproduct of the medium’s mindful self-imaging. For better and for worse, the docu-series embodies hallmark traits that have become calling cards on sibling shows like Patriot Act and Queer Eye —the insistence on ugly truths, the impulse for personal improvement, its pitch-perfect comedic timing. It’s not hard to imagine Mike hosting, say, The Break or Tidying Up ; he’d just as easily fit into the vocabulary of those shows. More than anything, though, Trigger Warning is an interesting distillation of Netflix’s evolving ethos. It’s proof that the streaming giant is still figuring it out: a self-assured show that echoes several of the series in its orbit, even as it strives to carve out an identity of its own.

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