In sitcoms, there’s a thing that will sometimes happen when a new character is introduced to the show: The newbie, often but not always a fleeting love interest of one of the main characters, will arrive on the scene … and then promptly be dismissed as narratively expendable. Tasha on Insecure, Emily on Friends, the Mother (her name is pretty much irrelevant) on How I Met Your Mother: They are good characters who serve, in the end, primarily as foils for the people the audience already knows—the people the audience has been trained, episode after episode, to care about. Issa. Rachel. Robin. So: After Ross, reciting his wedding vows to Emily, pledged his undying love to Rachel … Friends proceeded to treat the bride’s anger not as an eminently reasonable reaction to this turn of events, but rather as proof of her unfitness to become a permanent member of the tight-knit group at the show’s core. (This despite the manifest evidence that Emily’s love life, too, is DOA.)
Here, via the character whose chief flaw was her failure to be Rachel, was the brute cosmology of the TV sitcom laid bare: These shows, by hermetic design, tend to mistrust outsiders and to fetishize the familiar. That is part of their appeal, and also part of their trouble.
I thought about Emily—poor, inconvenient Emily—on Wednesday night, when I read Page Six’s report that the former CBS anchor Charlie Rose is “being slated to star in a show where he’ll interview other high-profile men who have also been toppled by #MeToo scandals.” According to the story (which offers notably conflicting accounts of the show’s provenance and design), the rumored series—being discussed in public forums by the editor Tina Brown, who says she was approached to produce the show—would involve discussions between Rose and Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, and other men whose misbehavior was brought to light by some of the women of #MeToo.
Such a thoroughly ill-conceived talk show may be the stuff of mere gossip; the report of it, however, joins a collection of several other stories that have been teasing—and testing, in the manner of a classically overinflated trial balloon—the idea of public comebacks for Rose and others who have been disgraced in #MeToo. “Almost five months after he was terminated by NBC for alleged sexual misconduct,” People magazine reported this week, “former Today show anchor Matt Lauer wants to atone for his actions.” The story goes on to aggregate insights, from Lauer’s (anonymous) friends and former colleagues, such as: “He is weak and broken and ashamed by his own admission.” And: “He is human, and he is flawed.” And: “He wants to make up for anything he has done to hurt people.”
People bills its report as an “exclusive,” which is technically true but not fully, since it arrives on the heels of another Page Six report that Lauer “is said to be testing the waters for a public comeback by coming out of hiding from his Hamptons home.” Which itself joins similar works of journalism about famous men who have retreated from the spotlight but are seeking its glow once more—stories about Rose and C.K., about Mario Batali, about Garrison Keillor. As The New York Times summed things up: “Several powerful men, in several industries, have had their worlds kicked out from under them as the #MeToo movement has gathered momentum. As many have removed themselves from public sight, forfeited business interests, or sought treatment, a question lingers: Is a comeback from such disgrace possible?”
The particulars of these comeback stories, like the egregiousness of their subjects’ reported behavior, vary. They feature a mixture of anonymous quotes; of informed speculation; of advice offered up to the disgraced; of, as in Keillor’s case, announcements of one’s own intention to return couched in vaguely conspiratorial tones. (“I’m ready to start up The Writers [sic] Almanac again,” the radio host wrote on Facebook. “I get the idea that public radio stations will never carry it again and so we’ll need to find a way to do it through social media. There are smart people who can manage this and make it easy.”)
What the stories tend to share is that trial-balloon hot air. They read, collectively, as tentative but brazen, painting pictures of men who are abashed, but not so abashed as to imagine that they won’t benefit from that old, alleged gift: the great American second chance. They revolve, in all that, around complicated questions—a tangle of moral considerations and business concerns and time being up and time marching on—about who deserves redemption. And who, conversely, does not. “No quote has ever been proven false more often than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s declaration that there are no second acts [in] American lives,” The Hollywood Reporter observed, before proceeding to offer a smattering of suggestions about how Louis C.K. might orchestrate his own such encore.
Which is to say that the comeback stories make distinctly sitcomic assumptions: Their universes are small. They present a set cast of characters—men who are so familiar that one of them earned $25 million a year precisely because of that familiarity—and figure that their fates are the ones readers will want to follow. The stories are, taken together, subtle (you might also say insidious) arguments not merely about who merits forgiveness, but also about who merits empathy in the first place. Who, according to the laws of the sitcom interloper, deserves the audience’s attention and investment and care? Who is the star—the center that must hold—and who is expendable? Who, in America’s ceaseless show, should stay in the spotlight?
Missing from the easy redemption stories, for the most part, are the women who came forward to say, “Me too.” Missing are the carefully reported details of the behavior that made the men’s redemption necessary in the first place. “He lifted his arms straight up and grabbed both of my breasts,” one woman, in December, reported of Batali. Rose, a woman said in November, “appeared before her in an untethered bathrobe, naked underneath. She said he subsequently attempted to put his hands down her pants. She said she pushed his hands away and wept throughout the encounter.” It was reported the same month that Lauer, summoning a female employee to his office, “dropped his pants, showing her his penis. After the employee declined to do anything, visibly shaken, he reprimanded her for not engaging in a sexual act.”
These are the accounts that tend to get edited out of the breezy redemption narratives that are currently emerging. These are the stories that tend to get brushed aside in favor of something newer and fresher and more familiar. (The thing about plots is that they must, somehow, find a way to move forward.) After he masturbated in front of her and her comedy partner Julia Wolov, Dana Min Goodman recalled in November, Louis C.K. effectively gave the pair the expendable-sitcom-character treatment: “Which one is Dana and which one is Julia?” he asked them.
Now, though, the C.K. story has moved on. The arc has bent once more. The current guest star is Gilbert Gottfried, and he is joking to The Hollywood Reporter, “The thing that to me was shocking and hurtful when I heard about Louis C.K. was that he never once invited me to his hotel room to watch him masturbate.”
We are used to celebrating the genius of powerful men. We are used to excusing the failings of powerful men. We are used to accommodating and explaining and assuming—that he had his reasons, that he is human, and he is flawed. The men of #MeToo have other reasons, too, of course: reasons to embrace the strategic optimism that is now on display in their stories. They are living in a world, after all, in which Roman Polanski won a Best Director Oscar; in which Mel Gibson, after the revelation of the tape in which he admitted to hitting his girlfriend and then informing her that “you fucking deserved it,” was nominated for the same honor; in which Quentin Tarantino was joyfully celebrated—for a movie, indeed, that he has yet to shoot. They are living in a world, too, in which a brand of shampoo cheerily reminds TV viewers that “everyone loves a comeback.” Even split ends, apparently, deserve another chance to shine.
Fitzgerald really did get it wrong: Americans love nothing more than second acts. Comebacks are dramatic. They’re magnanimous. They’re reminders that, while glass houses may be plentiful in American life, so is super glue. And so redemption, in the land of second chances—for the people who have been deemed worthy of them—has been thoroughly ritualized. The temporary isolation in a house in the Hamptons. The anonymous friends vouching for the offender’s contrition. The teasing rumors. The earnest charity work. The promises to do better, to be better. The prostration upon the sequined altar of Dancing With the Stars.
Those light liturgies do nothing, though, for the people on the other side: those who are not famous, who are not stars, who are not assumed to be worthy of being gossiped about in Page Six. “To welcome someone like C.K. or Batali back into the fold not six months after these accusations broke,” The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz put it, “is to intimidate other victims from speaking out, because it will make them think their stories don’t matter, or that the power granted to them by the #MeToo movement was just a temporary spell.” It is also to treat the women, in all these stories of quiet rehabilitation, as, effectively, complications. Having made their cameos, when #MeToo was the story arc of the moment, they are now no longer necessary. The show has moved on. The episode has ended; the credits have unspooled. The women become, in those framings of things, Emilys: Their anger—their pain—no longer fits the narrative. It is inconvenient. And so it is written away.
In March, before The Hollywood Reporter would run a long feature on his “broken” and “brilliant” and “lonely” new life—and before Page Six would find him dining with Sean Penn and “partying” with Woody Allen and allegedly planning an atonement-themed #MeToo talk show—Charlie Rose sent a tweet. “H,” the message read, in full. Whether a typo or a test or something else entirely, the posting—the single letter, denuded of context or explanation—ended up serving as the first public comment Rose made on Twitter since leaving his shows in disgrace. And the hovering little letter was met with, for the most part … an outpouring of love. “Charlie, welcome back. Your absence has left an intellectual void not only in my life, but that of many of your viewers,” one person replied. “We all make Big mistakes, Hurry back,” said another. “Hope to see you back on the air soon,” said another. After all, Charlie Rose’s loyal fan explained: “At this time of turmoil we need your journalism and professionalism.”