Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is not as funny as its 2004 predecessor, but this deficiency is not for want of effort. Not only do the jokes come fast and furious, but screenwriters Will Ferrell (who, of course, also stars as the film’s titular hero, Ron Burgundy) and Adam McKay are unafraid to delve into the absurd, incorporating a pet shark, a Minotaur, the ghost of Stonewall Jackson, and even Kanye West into the story arc. It’s so silly, in fact, that criticism seems pointless. Are we supposed to quibble that, if the ghost of Stonewall Jackson were to appear, he would certainly not have the Dementor-like powers attributed to him by Ferrell and McKay?! No, better to just giggle and move on.
Nevertheless, this ridiculousness does have a cost. For Anchorman 2 rests on a brilliant premise: the buffoonish, chauvinistic, racially-insensitive Burgundy is the one responsible for the rise of today’s cable news. Hired to anchor the 2:00am broadcast on GNN (Global News Network) — the first 24-hour news channel — Burgundy and his “team” ponder how to attract a viewership. Burgundy’s answer is as prophetic as it is amusing: “Why do we need to tell people what they need to hear? Why can’t we tell them what they want to hear?” Soon a revolution is born. While another network is conducting an interview with Yasser Arafat, Burgundy features an O.J. Simpson-style car chase. Of course, the viewers (and, as it turns out, Arafat himself!) prefer the latter, and, for all of his foolishness, Burgundy is smart enough to perceive that the news, no less than anything else, can be presented as entertainment, as circus. Thus his slot on GNN, which is quickly bumped to prime-time, features stories about sex, death, patriotism, and, yes, cute animals. Moreover, these issues are handled in carnivalesque fashion, with flashing screens, constant information, talking heads, and sensationalistic reporting. The implication not only smacks of Freud, but also of the Bible: human beings are drawn to the salacious, the sentimental, and the fearful. They want what they can’t have, and they hate what they do have.
Thus Ferrell and McKay raise important questions that Anchorman 2 is, by and large, content to ignore. Nevertheless, Burgundy’s redemption late in the film gestures toward a surprisingly theological conclusion: for all of their foibles and flaws, for all of their darker impulses, persons ultimately desire the happiness of concrete relationships — with family, friends, even with creation — rather than the simulacra of virtual reality. Yet, for this redemption to occur, the TV and other forms of media, which always present the real in restricted, abstract terms, have to be turned off. Burgundy’s salvation, then, points away from the gnosticism of postmodern media to the “enfleshed” spirituality of the Christian story. Burgundy is a fool, but even fools can perceive that, in the end, the real is better than the virtual.