In Soft Focus: Jena Friedman Hits Hard Topics With Quiet Humor

An entertaining but ultimately thought-provoking look inside current issues, neatly packaged in what at times looks like a parody of news exposés.

As he reflects on the nature of his crime and how his conviction played out, Gil Valle wonders aloud, “Why me?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, responds, “Because you plotted to kill women, and your wife caught it, and the FBI investigated it.”

This exchange, featured in [adult swim]’s special Soft Focus with Jena Friedman, is wholly representative of the short-form special’s premise: exploring the nature of crimes with a frankness that is funny in its results. It’s the kind of special that leaves you wanting more, and yet its status as a special means we likely won’t get that. After watching this seventeen minute special, I was drawn in enough to want more- which makes the one-off format feel like a mistake.

The show’s title was, per Friedman, inspired by “Barbara Walters-style news magazine shows.” Its look recalls prior investigative profile shows, most notably Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait and Moment of Truth, yet its dialogue and writing style would be more at home in the writers’ rooms of or The Colbert Report. The show’s segments, first on campus rape and then a retrospective with NYC’s “Cannibal Cop,” feature Friedman’s trademark deadpan delivery but toward the goal of helping interviewees understand the gravity of their actions. To put it bluntly, as [adult swim] always does, they describe it as “fact and fiction blend[ing] in a harmonious union of what the f***.”

The first segment, exploring the pervasive nature of campus rape, is the show’s more effective outing, as a teen pregnancy prevention program is turned on its head- and fraternity men are asked to carry “Can’t Consent Carrie” dolls around to mimic the premise of having a woman around without objectifying her. Friedman told The Interrobang she had been wanting to do a segment on campus rape for a while, and her genuine interest in the topic shines through. The second ha;f, profiling the aforementioned Cannibal Cop puts him on a dating show scenario to find him a new partner- to whom he’ll have to confess his criminal history, before getting a couples’ sports massage. “I had read in the NY Post that he’s dating again and thought he might be interesting to talk to.” The segment shows promise given its short runtime, but it left me wondering, “What else might Jena have to say?”

Friedman’s Daily Show pedigree shines through in these interviews, as she gently but unequivocally pulls out the most absurd parts of her subject’s worldviews and opinions. More impressive, she’s able to create small breakthroughs in learning with the men she interviews, a phenomenon most evident in the campus rape segment. Says Friedman about these moments, “The point of the piece wasn’t to call men out but rather to try to find a way to increase their empathy and understanding on this issue. Did we succeed at doing that in a funny way? I hope so.” Soft Focus does succeed on that front, and the result is an entertaining but ultimately thought-provoking look inside current issues, neatly packaged in what at times looks like a parody of news exposés. Here’s hoping it doesn’t stay too tightly packaged, and we get a chance to see more of Jena’s takes on topics like these.

Soft Focus with Jena Friedman premieres Sunday night at midnight/11c on [adult swim].

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.