Culture is in a deep freeze. Streaming TV may be gleefully releasing bingeable properties at a pre-crisis clip, but even Netflix will, at some point, run out of shows, since nothing is being produced. Movie theaters are closed. Every book release that can be delayed is being delayed. No one will see any live music until summer, at the absolute earliest.
Cable news has rushed into the void. The president’s daily briefings have a lot in common with Donald Trump’s pre-presidency gig, The Apprentice. “In its short life, for all its dead-serious subject matter, the program has developed the structure, rhythm, and characters of a weekly reality show,” The New York Times’ television critic James Poniewozik wrote earlier this week. “The briefings allow him to turn his pandemic response from a serial narrative, in which he’s held accountable for his cumulative action or inaction over time, into an episodic production, in which all that matters is what happened in the latest installment.”
Counter-programming has emerged, however. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has taken the role as the president’s foil. With Joe Biden perpetually restarting his modem in Delaware, and with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer spending their energy amassing tax breaks for the upper-middle class, Cuomo has been the Democrats’ closest thing to a leader.
Cuomo has his own supporting cast. His daughters make cameos in his own daily briefings, offering teachable moments about the importance of family. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is both antagonist and comic relief, a gangly Colonel Klink without the laugh track.
Andrew Cuomo’s frequent appearances on his brother Chris Cuomo’s CNN show—and Chris’s recent appearance in one of Andrew’s daily briefings—have the feel of a sitcom. Andrew is 13 years his brother’s senior and looks even older. Both brothers are combative and a little thin-skinned. They love muscle cars and the memory of their father, the gifted orator and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. They do not always, however, seem to love each other.
The not always good-natured rivalry has repeatedly taken center stage over the past month. Asked if he was thinking about implementing a curfew, Andrew told his brother, “I don’t like the word curfew. Dad tried to have a curfew for me, and I never got past the resentment.”
“That was the least of your problems, your problems with the curfew,” Chris fired back. “Just so you know.” Andrew’s response gave me bad flashbacks of the eighth grade: “Well, I never violated—you violated the curfew all the time.”
The brotherly bickering concluded the same broadcast. “Governor Andrew Cuomo, I appreciate you coming on the show. I love you. I’m proud of what you’re doing, I know you’re working hard for your state. But no matter how hard you’re working, there’s always time to call Mom,” Chris said. “She wants to hear from you. Just so you know.”
“I called Mom,” Andrew shot back. “I called Mom just before I came on this show.” He added, for good measure, “By the way, she said I was her favorite. Good news is she said you are her second-favorite son, Christopher.”
Over the last several days, their relationship has taken on a new tone. Chris was diagnosed with Covid-19 earlier this week and has become the face of the disease on CNN. Recording from his basement, with dark circles under his eyes, he has told viewers about what he’s going through: a high fever and chills so severe he chipped a tooth. He even, like Hamlet, saw a vision of his late father.
On Thursday, he appeared on Andrew’s daily briefing, telling viewers about a fever dream he had in which his brother wore a tutu and waved a wand, trying to make his illness vanish. “Thank you for sharing that with us,” Andrew responded.
The brothers have joked about Chris’s weightlifting and Andrew’s poor fishing ability. But Andrew has also used his brother’s example to make the seriousness of the situation clear to viewers, er, voters: “There is no superhero who is immune,” Cuomo told reporters. “No one can be protected from it. I couldn’t protect my own brother. As smart as he is, he couldn’t protect himself.”
There is an ethical issue here. Despite being known for his pugnacious style, particularly with Trump officials, Chris can hardly be expected to badger Andrew about New York’s response to the coronavirus. A viral bit featured Chris pestering Andrew not about the coronavirus, but whether he would run for president:
Thanks to friendly media coverage, Andrew has emerged as the Democratic voice on the coronavirus. In return, CNN’s coverage of the coronavirus gets a personal touch, strained as it sometimes is, that makes for better television.
The overall result is a counterpoint to Trump’s daily reality show, both in style and substance. Cuomo’s briefings, Poniewozik wrote, “are part tough talk, part pep talk. His tone is both more dire than the president’s and more emotional—a kind of virtual New York backslap next to Mr. Trump’s outer borough pitchmanship.” With his brother, those qualities are enhanced. The press often praises leaders for being father figures in times of crisis; Chris has literally lauded Andrew for “raising him” as a child.
This is, to be clear, a strange turn of events. Warmth is not a quality that one tends to associate with the Cuomo family. But even that plays into a classic TV trope, in which an older sibling is forced into a position of care that he may not be prepared for. Everything is copy, and the governor knows it. On Thursday, Andrew told his younger brother, “It’s sort of like the way you have a show. You have Cuomo Prime Time. I have Cuomo all the time.”