The Return of Keith Olbermann
Can he pull off nonannoying liberal television?
The nightly introduction to the new Countdown With Keith Olbermann (weeknights at 8 p.m. ET)—which debuted this week on Current TV, five months after its host's departure from MSNBC—prompts one important question: Why are you yelling? I'm right here. Olbermann delivers the intros, and a few other portions of his hourlong commentary show, in a controlled bellow, having decided, correctly, that his job calls for the articulation of rightful anger and the purgation of righteous disgust. He can grate, but that's fine. One supposes that the choir members in his audience get what they need from his preaching, and that those needs include cures for loneliness, consolations for demagogy, and opportunities for self-congratulation. There's also a possibility that his vocal timbre is rich in nutrients that enable spineless liberals to grow some backbone.
The new Countdown is very much like the old Countdown, with the same "Worst Person in the World" segment populated by the same Fox News personnel and the same rhetorical dexterity put to the same counter-blowhard uses. The greatest difference is that the production values are less sophisticated than before, as you would expect of a program once affiliated with a news division rolling in Today money and now the cornerstone of a channel that you have never watched.
On MSNBC, Olbermann's backdrop was the Deco heaven of Rockefeller Plaza, where flags flapped with institutional pride. On Current, it is a facsimile of a bland slab of the Manhattan skyline, and this, in combination with something about the texture of the light, can make the viewer wonder whether he's stumbled across the nightly-news broadcast of the No. 2 channel in Toronto. In fact, this Countdown isn't terribly televisual and might gain in force and intimacy if it were transferred straight to radio, though it would suffer from the loss of light-hearted video clips that serve to cleanse the palate of bile. (See for instance a clip from the French Road Racing Cup, where a minor accident resulted in footage of a Triumph attempting to fornicate with a Yamaha.)
As ever, Olbermann's stridency of tone and choice of subject matter can prove embarrassing to viewers who share his political positions. Why are you dissing on Bristol Palin? It's too easy. Me, I've been disliking Eric Cantor for almost two decades, ever since he was in the Virginia House of Delegates and that fateful field trip when he parried a smart-assed question about the Second Amendment with a cynically nonresponsive answer. It takes a special something to elicit my sympathy for Rep. Cantor, but Olbermann cleared the bar, last night, when interviewing Rep. James Clyburn just after Cantor's having walking out of talks about the debt ceiling. Olbermann's second question regarded whether Clyburn kinda-secretly, halfway-jokingly hoped just a little bit that the walkout would ultimately result in a global financial apocalypse for which the Republican Party could be blamed. The answer was no. The question had been perfectly human; in specific, it had been juvenile.
Where other political talk shows suffer from the warped perspective of "the Beltway bubble," Countdown can feel trapped inside a snow globe of meta-media headlines where "Jon Stewart SLAMS Fox News" and "Rachel Maddow SLAMS Glenn Beck" and "Jon Stewart SLAMS Rachel Maddow" and you can't hear the argument for the clatter. Earlier this week, Olbermann devoted a notable chunk of time to interviewing Van Jones, a lawyer and environmental advocate most famous for serving Fox News' needs for a back-up bogeyman during his brief tenure in the Obama White House. The occasion for Jones' appearance was the fact of his sending Fox News a much-belated cease-and-desist letter requesting that they cut back on the mendacity. Why should I care? The only reason that Countdown's target viewer needs to hear more about the problem of Fox News is to puff out his chest for being superior to Fox News' target viewer. Elsewhere, Olbermann teased an interview with Janeane Garofalo by celebrating the fact that an earlier chat of theirs had cheesed off some right-wing types. But he provided no further context, leaving one to scurry to discover that "Lou Dobbs RIPS Keith Olbermann, Janeane Garofalo" and then to regret having bothered with commentary thrice-removed.
On Tuesday, Olbermann appeared on David Letterman to read the "Top 10 Reasons to Watch the New Countdown With Keith Olbermann," and it was good. No. 6: "We are neither fair, nor balanced." The day after, Countdown aired the bit in its entirety. I relished Olbermann's sense of fun and his ace delivery. His zesty enunciation of Topo Gigio—as in, No. 5, "Special news commentary from my hand puppet, Topo Gigio"—said much about his humble infatuation with broadcasting greats. But was this, the re-airing, a good use of two minutes of air time? Why sell himself to an audience that's already sold when he could instead spend the time hosting another reporter from Rolling Stone or Mother Jones promoting another good story? Or reeling off an opinion piece as eloquent as Thursday's night stirring comment on gay marriage? He has the freedom at his new venue to do something in the direction of trying to elevate political discourse. But will he be content to pump up his volume?
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of Keith Olbermann by Jason Kempin/Getty Images.