He’s Back

Olbermann and Countdown back on Current TV

It’s probably unwise to make any big calls on Keith Olbermann’s return to the big chair last night on Al Gore’s Current TV. Television programs, particularly live ones, are like restaurants: they take time to settle and find their groove. Even Broadway allows for kink-ironing previews before letting the wolves into the orchestra level. The wiser critic will give a show a few weeks to grow—and settle—before making any judgments on just how good or bad it tastes.

Of course, plenty of people did pass judgment on last night’s premiere episode of Countdown with Keith Olbermann—and, to be fair, they had a right to. It wasn’t really “opening night” for Olbermann—if the first-night reviews are anything to go by, Olbermann’s show is a near facsimile of his MSNBC program. He’s had time to do the ironing.

What are the critics saying, then? Generally: Olbermann’s show feels familiar, with a slightly harder edge and an all-male guest list of familiar faces (Michael Moore, Markos Moulitsas, Kenneth Vogel) who are too quick to fawn over their host. And generally, they didn’t like it.

Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker described it as “an hour loaded with obviousness and an unfortunate amount of fawning on the part of his guests.” The Wrap’s Tim Molloy was ferocious: “Acting like a liberal cartoon drawn by Ann Coulter—president of the not-helping-their-cause-club—Olbermann ranged from dry and dull to overblown and pompous.” Hank Stuever at The Washington Post declared it all rather sleepy—“…Olbermann and company act as if they have all the time in the world to yap. It’s somewhere between a tape of Tom Snyder and the old ‘Countdown’’; a certain sharpness had not conveyed in Monday’s episode. Nearly 15 minutes in, as the exchange with Moore dragged on into fawning (Olbermann to Moore: ‘You have my gratitude, sire,’ etc.), I began to worry that the Current/Olbermann contract and business plan had failed to include commercials.”

Stuever did say he liked the look of the show—“onscreen graphics are cleaner, stripped of the news crawls and hyperactivity that litter the edges of a cables news channel…” But one man’s streamlined is another man’s outdated. Time magazine’s James Poniewozik wrote that “the generic New York backdrop and the graphics had a 1980s-local-newscast look to them…”

The most interesting takes on Olbermann’s new venture might have been those that grappled with Olbermann the man—who is apparently a tad difficult to deal with behind the scenes—and how the Olbermann persona will fit with his new show and new home. Mary McNamara, blogging at the Los Angeles Times, described the new incarnation of Countdown as “Olbermann unleashed” and praised the anchor’s clarity of mission. But she also noted that the very qualities that have made him successful could complicate the mission he outlined during his program last night.

…the blatant ├╝ber-medianess of his persona seems, at times, in direct conflict with that belief that “the weakest citizen is more important than the strongest corporation.” A media personality is, after all, something of a corporation, and humility can be as effective a weapon as grandstanding. Not as much fun, perhaps, but just as effective.

Poniewozik touched on the same point. Olbermann, who is relatable in the way he rails against “the man”—which formerly included his employer, MSNBC, and its human embodiment, Phil Griffin—is now “the man” at Current.

As documented in the recent ESPN history, Those Guys Have All the Fun—and as repeated in his later experience with MSNBC—Olbermann has always seen himself as the rebel within the Death Star, the lonely figure struggling against the wrongheaded suits. Part of his connection with the audience is his ability to turn that me-against-The-Man attitude into an us-against-the-Man call to arms, one we reiterated on Current. “We”—indicating his audience and himself—“are the last line of defense.”

The difference now, and what will make things interesting going forward, is that—although it’s still Al Gore’s network—Olbermann now to a great extent is The Man. He heads up the news operation at Current, and will be building a lineup to surround his show. After his career has so long been defined by his pushing against antagonists at his own network, who will Olbermann push against now?

The Wrap’s Molloy raised another interesting point about Olbermann’s move from MSNBC to Current: that in making that change, Olbermann has left behind his old network’s vast news-gathering operation.

Without…NBC behind him, he has little news to break. That leaves him to either hold pleasant-enough but not very groundbreaking discussions with Moore and other guests, or engage in self-righteous puffery like the Scarborough baiting and ridiculous Civil War analogy.

The single segment that most critics homed in on as particularly egregious was an interview towards the end of the show with DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas. The two discussed, at some length, the reasons for which Moulitsas believes he has been banned from MSNBC. It all had something to do with Twitter, and Joe Scarborough, and other things about which you probably don’t and definitely shouldn’t care. Watch below.

Entertainment Weekly described it as the “most squirm-inducing” part of the show. The Post’s Stuever vamped, “If this kind of talk gets you going, then boy, does Keith Olbermann have a show for you.” But the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik had the sharpest takedown of this “insider madness” and “self-indulgence.”

…the angry words of Moulitsas had all the invective, petty jealousy and general sense of intramural nutsiness that you might find late at night in the dorms of a small undergraduate college after a hotly contested student government election. And I am sure the attack on Griffin and Scarborough had every bit as much interest for a mass audience as such a collegiate donnybrook might have.

Or a roundup of reviews of Keith Olbermann’s debut on Current, I suppose.

It’s worth noting that Olbermann didn’t have much chance with the critics. It’s always been a testy relationship there—Olbermann started his “Worst Person in the World” segment because of a column the Times’s Alessandra Stanley wrote about his then-colleague, Tucker Carlson. (Stanley was surprisingly soft on Olbermann’s debut in a review that disclosed her placing on the segment, more than once.) And he isn’t playing to the TV critics who think his menu might need a tweaking. He’s at Current to serve the Olbermanniacs who can quote his special comments on cue, who re-Tweet his wisdoms, and who tap their Olbermann bobble heads when they need a lift. It will be a few weeks before we know what they think of the man’s new show, and whether they are tuning in.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,