The idea that Tom Arnold could be the person to bring down President Donald Trump sounds completely ridiculous. Then again, pretty much every story involving presidential politics in 2018 sounds completely ridiculous so, hey, sure, why not? If the ex-husband of Roseanne Barr and the star of 1996’s The Stupids has the moxie and detective skills to tip the scales toward impeachment, more power to him.
The thing is I’m not sure that he does, and the first two episodes of The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, Arnold’s new pseudo-investigative series that debuts Tuesday on Viceland, do little to inspire confidence. After months of hinting on Twitter that he knows that incriminating recordings of Trump exist, the actor has finally put a TV deal where his mouth is and set out to prove it on camera. Whether he can actually reveal anything significant is another matter and one I seriously doubt.
“Are you familiar with Donald Trump?” Arnold asks Jacob, his writing assistant, a few seconds into the first episode, as if it’s possible that a person currently existing on planet Earth could respond with, “Nope, never heard of him. Fill me in!” Arnold then proceeds to explain things viewers will already know — that seems to be a hallmark of this series — and lay out his plans to recover all high-profile Trump-related recordings, including tapes of him saying appalling things on The Apprentice set and maybe even the famous so-called pee-pee tapes in which Trump allegedly instructed Russian hookers to urinate on a hotel bed once slept in by President Obama. Jacob — no last name is ever given — listens but looks skeptically at Arnold, another hallmark of this series. Almost everyone our host talks to wonders why he’s doing this show at all.
“Here’s the thing about you running around like a nut trying to find these tapes,” says magician Penn Jillette, a former Apprentice contestant, in episode two. “What are you going to accomplish?” That’s a great question. In an attempt to answer it, Arnold responds by saying the country deserves to know everything there is to know about our president, and that if there’s even a chance that something in one of those mythical tapes could change minds about how to handle him going forward, it’s worth the effort. Which: okay, fine. But let’s be honest: part of what Tom Arnold wants to accomplish is keeping the name Tom Arnold relevant.
In the introduction to The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, Arnold is described as someone who has “reached the top”— footage of him at the premiere of True Lies and a quick shot of the movie poster for Soul Plane are among the imagery used to illustrate his apex — and “hit rock bottom” and therefore “knows everyone,” including Trump, with whom he is shown in an old photograph. “He’s the same kind of old-school dumbass that I am,” Arnold says of the commander-in-chief. “But I sure don’t think a guy like me should be president.” In other words, Arnold feels obligated to use his connections to take some action.
The problem is that his connections don’t seem to get him very far. He notes that he’s appeared many times on Howard Stern’s radio show, but when he makes another appearance, Stern and Sirius XM won’t even allow him to use the video footage for his Viceland show. Instead, audio of the two of them having a not particularly illuminating conversation is brought to life by rudimentary, animated versions of the two men.
Arnold’s supposedly dear friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took over as host of The Apprentice post-Trump, won’t appear on the show, so Tom Arnold ultimately has to ambush the other Arnold in a parking lot. Only after an amiable conversation ends, once Schwarzenegger is many feet away, does the Trump Tape Hunter shout a question about whether his True Lies co-star spoke to anyone on The Apprentice crew regarding the president’s past behavior. In case there was any confusion, Tom Arnold is no Bob Woodward. Journalistically speaking, he’s not even Bob the Builder.
That’s one of the major problems with this series: It kinda sorta takes the process of revealing Trump for who he is seriously, but lacks the rigor necessary to execute on its promise. On more than one occasion, Arnold — who has a tendency to ramble on with the unfocused energy of a tinfoil-hat-wearer — says something that is patently untrue. When he casually notes, for example, that Schwarzenegger, who recently had heart surgery, now has “a pig heart,” text appears on the screen that states, with a clarifying asterisk: “*Arnold Schwarzenegger does not have a pig heart.” Even on a silly show like this, you need to be able to trust the integrity of the, for lack of a better word, documentarian. If one of the main problems with Trump is that he lies constantly — and it’s pretty clear that this is a major issue — it’s counterproductive and insulting to the viewer for Arnold to so casually spread misinformation.
But that shared trait does shine a light on a simple truth, something Jillette notes as well: that both Trump and Arnold are similarly shameless pop-culture animals who love attention at any cost. Even if his intentions are good, Arnold is plagued by the same sort of laziness that’s endemic to our perpetually golfing leader. At no point in the two episodes provided for review does Arnold uncover anything we don’t really know already. Yes, through overdramatized, clandestine means, he gets access to thousands of hours of audio interviews between Trump and Stern that Sirius XM had refused to make public. But mostly what we learn from those clips is that Trump is a misogynistic pig. Which: duh.
In an attempt to delve deeper, Arnold asks psychoanalyst and George Washington University professor Justin Frank to listen to some of the audio and explain the psychology behind it. “My diagnosis,” Frank announces, “is that Trump is Trump.” Please, can someone alert Rachel Maddow? I’m trapped beneath the weight of this revelation and can’t get up.
Arnold does almost gets several former Apprentice crew members to appear in the series, but they bail at the last minute, allegedly afraid they might get sued or blacklisted. Instead, he recruits members of the waitstaff at an L.A. restaurants to read written statements they provided, which corroborate what Jillette says in the series and has already stated publicly: that Trump was horrible to people on set and routinely said racist, homophobic, and misogynistic things without any repercussions. Obviously, that’s awful. But it’s nothing new, and The Hunt for the Trump Tapes builds more bombast around it than is warranted.
There are some oddball touches in the series that suggest it’s trying to have a sense of humor about itself. Images of ridiculous structures— a massive castle, an igloo — are shown with the caption “Tom Arnold’s House,” suggesting the actor is aware of his own occasional delusions of grandeur and is in on the joke. If The Hunt for the Trump Tapes were fully made in that vein, as a knowing deconstruction of fame — both how difficult it is for people like Tom Arnold to hang on to it, and how it warps public perception so much that we wound up with Trump in charge — it might be more interesting, or at least add a new layer to the conversation about how celebrity and politics intersect. But it’s not that. More than anything, it seems to be a sincere attempt to finally uncover solid proof of some of the worst rumors about Trump without taking things things too serious. The problem is that the process of investigating our president should be taken seriously. The fact that we treated the prospect of Trump as president as a joke is what got us in this mess in the first place.
Tom Arnold is correct: An old-school dumbass like him shouldn’t be president. But an old-school dumbass like him also shouldn’t be the one investigating the president, either, unless he’s going to do it in a real way, and not a reality-TV way.