In the omnipresent commercials for MSNBC's new talk show The Situation with Tucker Carlson (weeknights at 9 p.m. ET), we see Carlson seated on a stool in a studio as he listens to an announcer sing his praise in voiceover: "The man. The legend. The bow tie." "You think that's gonna make people want to watch the show?" Carlson twits the unseen narrator. "Why don't you just tell them what the show's about?"
Ignoring for a moment the unseemliness of this promo campaign (a new hire kicks off his tenure by biting the hand of his boss?), let me just venture an answer to Carlson's second question. I have no idea whether the bow-tie angle will draw in viewers or not (in fact, I'm neutral on the bow-tie issue, though according to my anonymous tipster on the finer points of male fashion, "A bow tie says, 'I have no penis.' It says, 'When I was in parochial school, the sisters thought I was fresh.' It says, 'I shower more than is really normal or healthy.' ") I do know, though, that it would be tough to "just tell" audiences what The Situation is about, because, based on the first week's worth of installments, it doesn't seem to be about much of anything at all.
Jon Stewart's Crossfire freakout last October was the symptom (and not, as some have asserted, the cause) of a widespread disgust with the high-octane screaming matches of cable news. The Situation, like MSNBC's Connected: Coast to Coast, solves the problem of the screaming match, not by upgrading the level of discourse, but by removing all content from the discussion. On the two daily installments of CC2C (I'm just going to keep using that acronym until it catches on), Monica Crowley and Ron Reagan smile stiffly as they end all interviews at the moment contention begins to emerge. On The Situation, Tucker and his regular panel (the conservative radio host Jay Severin and the Air America pundit Rachel Maddow) take the concept of nicey-nice news even further: They don't disagree at all!
Well, barely. The show's politics could be best characterized as an ironic, mildly aggrieved libertarianism, focusing on symbolic social issues rather than more complex policy questions. Last night, all three panelists agreed on most topics, sometimes in ways that might have surprised conservative viewers: Medical marijuana (and, possibly, marijuana period) should be legalized. Terri Schiavo should have been allowed to die. Flag-burning is constitutionally protected free speech. There were a few dust-ups along the way; discussing a school principal who fudged grades to get around federal testing standards, Maddow got Severin riled up with her unambiguous proclamation that "anything that undermines No Child Left Behind is good for kids and is good for education." But Carlson rushed to soothe them both: "I think we should agree: Cheating, bad." Well, that's that, then!
The Situation 's main innovation is not an innovation at all, but a ripoff from ESPN's sports-chat show Pardon the Interruption: a list of topics appears down the left-hand side of the screen, to be ticked off one by one as the panelists move through a series of rapid-fire discussions. One recent to-do list looked like this: "Schiavo, Marijuana, Gitmo, Flag Burn, Crusaders, Iran." This, of course, is just what cable news has been sorely needing: a shorter time frame for news analysis! Enough, already, with the in-depth policy debate! The show also contains brief interviews with authors and policymakers and a regular feature called "Op-Ed Op-Ed" in which Carlson takes a bloggerlike tour through a few of the day's newspaper editorials, offering his take on each.
Tucker Carlson comes off as your ultimate nightmare of the college roommate you might be assigned on the first day of freshman year: a smug yuppie smartass with a drawerful of perfectly folded pastel polo shirts. But there's something sneakily subversive about him, too—he might surprise you by smuggling a bottle of bourbon under those shirts and sharing it with you over a late night of raunchy talk. The Situation is shallow, but far from unwatchable; it zips along at a healthy clip, getting in a few good digs along the way, and next thing you know it's over, and you're no worse off than you were before.
Jon Stewart wasn't entirely off in characterizing Carlson on Crossfire as a "dick," though I think of him as more of a "weenie." But he's no idiot. I respected him for changing his position on the Iraq war last year, around the time it became painfully obvious that clinging to hardcore hawkdom was a diagnosable disorder. In this interview with the New York Observer, he told Joe Hagan: "I think it's a total nightmare and disaster, and I'm ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it. ... I want things to work out, but I'm enraged by it, actually." I rubbed my eyes when I first read this interview: Crossfire host admits he's wrong? Professional pundit changes mind? That's the kind of substantial political conversation that, in the best of all possible worlds, should be taking place on cable TV.