Nicholas Roberts/The New York Times/Redux
When Glenn Beck “parted company” with Fox News in June of last year, he took his Glenn Beck-ness with him. He took his tears, and his chalkboards, and his patriotic unction. He took his world-historical sweep and his zodiac of personal demons. He took his edifying projects and his long-haul feuds, his hobbyhorses and hobgoblins. He took his face, his voice, the vials of his wrath, the quivering curds of his indignation—he took it all, and he left the network. Gone! There was no replacement for Glenn Beck. None was possible. The portal simply resealed itself, and there we were again—we the people, the watchers of Fox, back with the everyday lineup of guffers and bluffers.
Where did Glenn Beck go, on his nimbus of madness? To the Internet, that’s where. In September 2011, mere months into his exile, Beck launched a Web TV network called GBTV. It was risky, very risky, a precipitous venture from a precipitous man. Dozens of new employees, millions of dollars invested—and what would it do to the brand? “Beck premiered today,” crowed Keith Olbermann, “having lost about 90 percent of the audience he had at Fox!” And it was true: Beck was down from a daily average of 2.2 million Fox viewers to a hard core of 230,000 GBTV subscribers. But oh, the feeling that he might have blown it—this was champagne to Glenn Beck. It mingled strangely in his mind with a whiff of divine ordination. “I’m about to take on massive debt,” he confided huskily during an October episode of The Glenn Beck Program on GBTV. “It seems absolutely crazy to me, and I’m not going to keep asking if that’s right.” We could feel the pressure of oncoming tears: his face was getting that glandular look. “I will listen and obey … I have prayed and prayed and prayed for the answers that I’m going to give you today … I’m a guy who is making crazy business moves right now. I left the biggest and best cable news network at the pintacle of news in the world!” That’s right, folks, the pintacle. The pinnacle of the pentacle. It doesn’t get any higher than that.
VIDEO: James Parker narrates Glenn Beck's online programming, from earnest diatribes to fun chemistry experiments.
Approaching its first birthday, GBTV—motto: “The truth lives here”—looks just like a cute little baby network. In programming terms, at least, it has so far been spared the wilder outgrowths of the Beck libido. It has a little comedy, a little reality TV, a little programming for the kids. There’s “news” and opinion and, inevitably, hours of the maestro himself, on the mic, talking to the camera, rolling and wallowing in airtime like a basking seal. Only Glenn Beck can do what Glenn Beck does. In all that “raucous stream of misinformation” (to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh), he stands and weeps alone. He may lack the kingpin malevolence of Rush Limbaugh, or the triumphant mendacity of Sean Hannity, but only Beck, discoursing in his heady, open-pored way, can really take you there, to that ideological alpha state wherein squinting mistrust combines with a quite extraordinary credulousness. Look, there he is waving his arms about in front of a sign that reads I AM A MAN. Now he’s at his blackboard, probing the money behind the perfidious liberal organization Media Matters: “$4.3 million from Tides Foundation,” he murmurs, wonderingly. “That’s George Soros! Then there’s 2.3 [million] from the Bohemian Foundation … Huh, that’s almost like the ancient god Baal … Are you seeing the pattern here at all? Are you beginning to see the pattern?”
So let’s watch some GBTV. Comedy first: The B.S. of A., with your host, Brian Sack. Skits, Maher-style monologues, sad smatterings of supportive laughter from a tiny off-camera audience. “A new poll found that 52 percent of Republican voters in Mississippi believe that President Obama is a Muslim. When informed of the statistic, the president sighed, shook his head, and rolled up his prayer rug.” Groan. The show’s Sesame Street spoof, “Pumpernickel Boulevard,” raises the ghost of a smile: “Feelin’ good, havin’ fun / Everybody’s number one!” What the hell, a lampoon of mushy pluralism—I can dig it. But then a puppet called Lexie pops up: “There’s Lexie, the tenured schoolteacher!” What does Lexie have to share with us? “Stupid governor wants to change our union contracts so that I can get fired for underperforming!” Double groan, with a splash of screw-you. Actually, the most poignant comedy I found on The B.S. of A. came courtesy of John Derbyshire, at the time a writer for National Review, who dropped by the studio to plug his book We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. A bracingly sour presence, grimacing over a glass of bourbon: “You know, pessimism—the trouble with pessimism is, it’s anti-social. Everybody hates you. Everybody hates me, anyway.” And so it came to pass: within weeks of this appearance, having posted several paragraphs of clinically racist argumentation to the online Taki’s Magazine, Derbyshire found himself universally vituperated (and fired by National Review).
Then there’s the reality TV, a show titled Independence USA, in which we follow Pennsylvania’s Belcastro family as it digs in for societal breakdown. The vibe is bucolic and mild: Nick the horse treads glumly across his paddock while Frank Belcastro, paterfamilias, chivvies his long-suffering brood through apprenticeships in blacksmithery and gunpowder manufacture. Frank is like any tinkering, pottering dad figure, except that his handyman reveries open onto a landscape by Hieronymus Bosch. “The filter is outside,” he declares through his enormous mustache while working on ventilation holes in the roof of the Belcastro bunker (a partially buried shipping container), the better to preserve the clan in the event of atmospheric contamination. GBTV is right on the curve here, deep in the meme. From the frowning woodsmen of the National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers to the zombie-infested pastures of Hershel’s farm in AMC’s The Walking Dead, television is having a little end-times-in-the-heartland moment. That Independence USA happens to be a hasty warming-over of Apocalypse, PA—the Belcastros’ previous attempt at a reality show, dumped by the History Channel after just three episodes—merely evidences the spirit of off-the-grid thrift that prevails at GBTV.
Liberty Treehouse is GBTV’s show “for the younger set.” Here you can step aboard the BioBus (it runs on vegetable oil), explore the history of the jelly bean, and learn what happens when you put dry ice inside a latex glove. It’s a pretty good show. You can also listen to the host, Raj Nair, gush about the Big Cheese, his visionary CEO. “Glenn is my boss,” he told viewers on March 6, “so I see him a lot, and if there’s one person he really reminds me of, it’s that of Walt Disney. This guy who has dreams … People are like, ‘Ah! Ain’t gonna happen! No way! Too crazy, too big!’ But just like Walt Disney, Glenn’s like, ‘All right!’ and that just fuels him even more.”
This is really the key to GBTV. Walt Disney, the ancient god Baal, whoever: Glenn Beck’s dream is bigger than all of us. If you think he’s going to settle for this, for exile, for blustering and bunkum-izing in an Internet backwater to a few hundred thousand true believers, then you don’t know Glenn Beck. In December, a GBTV press release announced the construction of a new HQ in Dallas, ominously promising that GBTV Studios would become “a multi-platform destination for the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” Has he seen around the corner, to the moment when TV and the Internet converge at last? It’s coming, we all know it’s coming. And Beck is a man of the future. He’s off your screen, for now. His frog-boilings and waterworks do not currently impinge upon your mind. But as Arnold warned us, in his beautiful Terminator accent—and here the Beck-ness of it all invites an atrocious joke—he’ll be Beck.