Dear CNN: Nothing personal, I just don’t want to be that close to Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker. The new she-said-he-said show, Parker/Spitzer, opened last night with the two hosts and a gaggle of guests crowded together around a round table the size of a medium pizza and, ugh, it was just too close. I think I may have felt someone’s knee touch mine.
First editions of cable news shows are often awkward, and the first edition of Parker/Spitzer seemed to be working hard—too hard—to create a sense of intimacy between the hosts and the audience. Especially with the male half of the team, Wall Street crusader and disgraced governor / prostitution client Spitzer, with whom the term “intimacy” carries the kind of connotations CNN would I think wish to avoid.
Indeed, though Parker’s name came first, most of the first hour seemed to be working to make us comfortable with, and put us on the side of, the controversial governor, who dominated most of the talk, and the choice of guests seemed designed to play to his interests and strengths. The one-on-one interview with Elizabeth Warren underscored Spitzer’s past as an anti-Wall Street crusader, which CNN has felt would give him populist appeal among viewers, while guest Aaron Sorkin played to Spitzer’s side of the aisle. (About which: the hosts say that this show is not going to be a liberal-vs.-conservative debate show. OK. But it is.)
And in perhaps the hour’s greatest moment of aggrandizement, Spitzer brought on his former Wall Street legal target Henry Blodget, now an online-media entrepreneur, to talk about, basically, what a great guy Spitzer was for taking on Wall Street. (“I found the e-mail trail to prove it … I prosecuted Henry and he paid a big price.”) “Wall Street is riddled with conflicts of interest,” Blodget said, “which you spotted and you went after, and I have a lot of respect for that.”
Who says cable news can’t breed forgiveness?
Parker, meanwhile, got much less of the spotlight on the first hour, beyond a wet-noodle “opening argument” in which she asked Sarah Palin to declare that she would not run in 2012, in order to offer clarity to the Republican field. (Between this, an Aaron Sorkin attack on her as a “mean,” divisive person, and a roundtable session in which each guest was challenged to say something nice about her, you would practically think the ratings-bait Palin was Spitzer’s co-host, though not physically present.)
The hosts were not helped by a production that still seemed struggling to find its tone. But for the CNN-standard rolling graphics in the background, the set looked like a 6 a.m. local-news morning show, there were too many uncomfortably tight head shots—maybe that intimacy imperative again—and the banter between Parker and Spitzer seemed too practiced, too polished, too TV. (I know that does not seem like it should be a criticism, but the most effective cable-opinion talk is more like radio—less rehearsed and fine-tuned.)
And the closing”Political Party” roundtable was just vapid, gathering a group of little-known pundits to answer fluffy questions like, “Who would be your ideal celebrity candidate?” and “What’s your guilty pleasure?” (Which, easy joke I know, but did no producer consider that might not be a question you want to raise on Eliot Spitzer’s first night?) On the plus side, while the show gave a platform to conservative blog mogul Andrew Breitbart after his out-of-context smearing of Shirley Sherrod, he was questioned about the incident, and his sparring partner, author Thomas Frank, was a booking choice outside the usual cable-news suspects.
This sort of show is a work in progress, and Parker and Spitzer will hopefully evolve into more effective hosts and a more comfortable pair as time goes on. (Ironically, the hyper-preparation that goes into a first episode probably ends up making it seem too heavily rehearsed.) But I still wonder whether the show’s basic format and casting work against it. CNN is devoted to the idea that Spitzer is a potential star and yet—his public-image liabilities being what they are—can’t put him in an environment where he is what he is, which is prosecutorial. You get the feeling he might be better suited to a show on his own, as would Parker, who so far is being treated less like a cohost and more like a chaperone.
But for now, in this format, maybe a few minor tweaks first. According to this recent New York magazine cover, CNN, you’re still pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Invest in a bigger table.