The names of MSNBC’s prime-time programs tend to come in two parts. Those names—Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Hardball with Chris Matthews, the erstwhile Verdict with Dan Abrams—and, in particular, the prepositions that connect them, suggest that each show, in the end, transcends its host. If Chris Matthews’s contract with MSNBC isn’t renewed, as is widely speculated, next year, there could still be a Hardball. Countdown was still Countdown when it was guest-hosted this summer by Olbermann’s talk-TV protégé, Rachel Maddow.
When Maddow’s own MSNBC program debuted last night, though, viewers were introduced to, simply, The Rachel Maddow Show. No preposition. No name but hers. Which is telling. The newest addition to MSNBC’s prime-time lineup isn’t just of Rachel Maddow and by Rachel Maddow; in many ways, it’s for Rachel Maddow.
There’s very little pragmatic reason, after all, for a Rachel Maddow Show to exist in the first place: The program is essentially a spin-off of Olbermann’s, covering similar content in a similar tone, to such an extent that Maddow’s show, which follows Olbermann’s in the 9 p.m. slot, will have to work hard not to seem redundant. (In many ways, this is by design: “MSNBC has been known to be seeking a way to capitalize to a greater degree on Mr. Olbermann’s popularity,” wrote the Times. “A program with Ms. Maddow as host will almost certainly be a closer ideological fit with Mr. Olbermann’s.”)
The show, with its liberal-leaning host, fills no discernible gap in MSNBC’s prime-time schedule. It adds little of the “dissenting perspective” to counterbalance the Olbermann ideology that is, increasingly, the defining voice of the network. Unlike Verdict, with its legal focus, or Hardball, with its politics-as-a-game conceit, TRMS offers little of the gimmickery that usually sells a show in the early days and weeks of its airing.
The gimmick of The Rachel Maddow Show is Maddow herself. Or, specifically, the popularity Maddow has garnered while hosting her eponymous Air America radio show and guesting on MSNBC—at first, as the “token liberal” in panel discussions and, later, as a celebrity in her own right. The quick-witted Rhodes Scholar (she has not only an MPhil from Oxford, but a doctorate from the school) has become, in the relatively short time she’s been a TV Personality Proper, a bona fide media darling. “Openly gay, with looks that might be described as “handsome,” she’s fast-talking, geeky, flawlessly informed, and absolutely dogged in exposing scandal no matter how un-sexy it is for cable! news,” Vanity Fair wrote of her. “We kind of love her,” echoed New York magazine.
Much of the appeal comes, as VF noted, from that particular combination, so rarely seen among TV pundits, of being both “geeky” and “flawlessly informed.” Maddow makes a habit of basing her arguments on, you know, facts. (In this, she’s also an heir to the Olbermann Approach: though “the O’Reilly of the Left” will sometimes spin facts to make his points, he makes a point of bolstering his opinions with reporting.) Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, “bloviating” is a term you likely won’t often hear associated with Maddow.
Still, the specter of Olbermann hangs heavy over TRMS. Last night, Maddow was the final guest on Countdown—the segment was filmed in Maddow’s studio—before Olbermann transitioned to his role as the first guest on TRMS. The seamless chicken-and-egg-ness of it all was clearly by design—as was the fact that Maddow spent nearly half her hour of airtime parsing an interview with Barack Obama which had been conducted by Olbermann, and which had aired, in the previous hour, on Olbermann’s show. One can’t help but think of The Colbert Report, which spent its inaugural episodes under the wing of The Daily Show before breaking free and fully developing its own, independent voice.
It will take time for TRMS to develop that voice. The various segments into which the show has divided itself—the “Talk Me Down” segment, in which Maddow gets upset about something, and is mollified by a guest; the “Just Enough” segment, in which a guest provides the notoriously pop-culture-deprived host with “just enough” info about the latest Britney Saga, Brangelina Birth, etc.; the “Mind over Chatter” segment—feel more suited to a 1970s game show than a semi-serious news talk show. And the show’s red, white, and blue graphics, though certainly more dignified than Olbermann’s “Worst Persons” bobbleheads or Matthews’s random political cartoons, could use—dare I say—a bit of flair. (The backdrop of Maddow’s anchor chair is a patchwork of blue and red tiles—which fits the ’70s vibe, perhaps, but doesn’t offer the visual verve that would best complement Maddow’s generally snappy content.)
But I quibble. Because, as it turns out, all other things considered, MSNBC’s gamble was right: Maddow, on her own, is enough to sell the show. Cable could use a pundit who puts a premium on information—and one, no less importantly, who is open-minded enough to question her own opinions and assumptions. (The fact that she invited Pat Buchanan, her “fake uncle,” to guest on the show last night is as good evidence as any of Maddow’s desire to be challenged.) The tone last night was, above all, respectful—respectful of guests, and respectful of audiences. We saw little of the pandering-to-the-base(-emotions) that we’ve become so accustomed to in cable commentary. Instead, we saw a simple exchange of information and ideas, with a bit of Maddowian Sarcasm thrown in for good measure.
The Rachel Maddow Show will, as such programs always do, evolve from its current form. But one thing it will keep is its name—plain, powerful, and prepositionless. All things considered, that name is fitting.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.