Last night CNN debuted its new chat program Parker/Spitzer, which fits into the slot in evening programming formerly filled by Lou Dobbs. The program, co-hosted by liberal former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and conservative New York antagonist Kathleen Parker, is basically run in a chat format, with "opening arguments" from each, some debate, and then a string of celebrity guests and political talking heads. In the first episode, the pair had on Andrew Breitbart to talk about Sarah Palin (a topic that became a theme of the episode — it was also the subject of Parker's opening monologue), and Business Insider's Henry Blodgett. Awkwardly, the latter had last faced off with Spitzer when the two were in court and Spitzer, then New York's Attorney General, was bringing the Merrill Lynch broker down. Last night's encounter actually turned into something of a love-fest, which left it to guest Aaron Sorkin to provide the real fireworks of the opening show.
Here's the encounter, in which Sorkin calls Sarah Palin an "idiot" and a "remarkably, stunningly, jaw-droppingly incompetent and mean woman."
Even he knows that he's causing problems for the movie he's promoting, The Social Network, by slagging off on the darling of the right wing. But based on the film's opening weekend, we think it'll survive.
The new CNN show has gotten pretty universally panned by critics. "It was unlikely to quicken viewer pulses," wrote David Hinckley in the Daily News. In the Post, Andrea Peyser was even less charitable, calling it a "freak show" that was "unbearable to watch." In the Times, Alessandra Stanley agreed describing the show's "ickiness," which she says, "carries a queasy whiff of sulfur." Yipes!
It's true — the show wasn't particularly easy to watch. Spitzer is nervous on camera, and the two were reluctant to get into a real blowout debate with one another — or one of their guests. Take the moment when Parker, a champion of personal responsibility, cautiously "plays Devil's Advocate" with consumer protection czar Elizabeth Warren. Why not go after her? Why the politesse? Parker and Spitzer are up against Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann — the eight o'clock hour is not the time to pull punches.
It's too soon to write this show off after just one episode, as comfort on camera is perhaps the easiest thing to improve of all the factors going into the success of a show. Neither Spitzer nor Parker is a pro at this, and they'll inevitably get better in time. What they need, though, is to shed a little bit of the jokey friendliness they've adopted, and wield their true weapons: their minds. Whether you agree with them or not, the two of them are whip smart, and relatively reasonable. They have the power to cut through a lot of cable news bullshit if they want to. If they provide a refreshing alternative to the bombastic shows they're up against, they may just succeed. If they provide just another tepidly curious news roundup, they're just going to create another drag on CNN's already flagging ratings.