In Depth: The Last Word may Indeed be The Last Word

Last week, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell debuted on MSNBC. I will admit that I was skeptical of the selection of O’Donnell for MSNBC’s 10pm slot. It was, and still is, the conservative choice. But I may have to revisit my earlier reservations.

It’s one thing to put O’Donnell in the Countdown slot for a time and see him do well there, but it was not a guarantee that O’Donnell would perform the same in a slot more tailored to his nature. Indeed Countdown and The Last Word are vastly different entities in tone and delivery, with Olbermann and his show’s at times manic pacing contrasted to The Last Word’s more glacial approach.

O’Donnell is more deliberative than Olbermann despite the fact that both travel in the same ideological circles and The Last Word reflects this, sometimes to a fault. I’ve caught four of the first six episodes and O’Donnell, unlike Olbermann invites the “opposing side” on but he does so in a rather hands off manner. O’Donnell will posit a question and then frequently, perhaps too frequently, lets the guest go all the way through the completion of his response which in some cases can last as long as a minute. This can translate into O’Donnell only getting in four or five questions while other hosts would get in perhaps twice as many because they would have cut their guest off in mid spiel. Interruption is a touchy subject for viewers, some hate it and some don’t. For me it all depends on who is being interviewed.

Case in point: tonight Michael Steele was on and O’Donnell was in full “laid back” mode for nearly the entire interview. This meant that Steele not only got to dodge and parry O’Donnell’s questions but get in a bunch of talking points that had little to do with the original question. Bill O’Reilly would never sit still for that kind of spinning and would have cut Steele off, had he been so inclined to do so, the moment Steele started going “on message”.

But this may not be in O’Donnel’s DNA. If Anderson Cooper is the anti-anchor (apologies to Shepard Smith who had the term applied to him first), Lawrence O’Donnell may be the anti-primetime host. Primetime has become synonymous with fast pace, interrupting, cross talk, and gotcha-ism. While O’Donnell appears to have the gotcha-ism thing down pretty well, he and his show seem to eschew the other three characteristics. O’Donnell is intelligent and has a strong background in the political world but unlike someone like Chris Matthews, who lovingly embraces the mechanisms and machinations of politics and political power, O’Donnell show comes across with a tinge of contempt, at the very least sarcasm, of the way the political world works today.

I’ve heard enough about “Crazy Larry”, to use Joe Scarborough’s well worn phrase, but so far I haven’t seen much of him on The Last Word. Instead I’ve seen a host that is very deliberate and reserved. This may be due to the newness factor – something new news anchors display frequently when they’re first brought on national cable news. Sometimes it takes time for them to ease into it and loosen up. This would not be surprising in O’Donnell’s case because he’s dropped sarcastic comments about being a host and the perils thereof several times now. After all, the guy had to be worked over hard by Phil Griffin several times before he agreed to do this show.

It seems part and parcel for a cable news primetime show to have a gimmick segment. Countown has Oddball and WPiTW. O’Reilly has Talking Points Memo and Pinheads and Patriots. On the Last Word there is the Rewrite segment. The purpose of the segment has O’Donnell taking a moment of history and rewriting it. Sometimes it’s a literal rewrite where O’Donnell rewrites something someone said or wrote. Other times its a figurative rewrite where O’Donnell looks at how something might have turned out differently if at one critical moment something had changed. The segment has run hot and cold for me – the literal rewrites work better than the figurative ones.

So far MSNBC must be pleased with The Last Word. It’s holding on to most of Maddow’s audience. And that’s bad news for CNN. But it’s early days still and I wouldn’t be popping champagne corks inside 30 Rock just yet.

This is particularly true when you consider that MSNBC wouldn’t budge its Friday doc block to make The Last Word a five night a week show. I find this inexcusable. After all the talk, all the hype, all the bluster that we’ve heard about how big a deal The Last Word is for MSNBC and they still hold on to the Friday doc block? It’s just mind bogglingly short sighted. If O’Donnell’s numbers continue at their current pace, MSNBC will be forced to quickly cave because those numbers are better than what The Doc Block can deliver. And if The Last Word does go to five nights a week, maybe we’ll get west coast repeats of MSNBC primetime and the Doc Block will be gone forever. What a nice thought that is…

Was O’Donnell the right choice? Tough question. I would say he’s the right choice for the format of show The Last Word currently follows. But then that’s to be expected since the show should be tailored to fit the host. Would someone else – Cenk Uygur – have been better? Well that’s impossible to tell because that’s trying to prove a negative. I still continue to believe that Uygur is a better fit for what is expected from cable news primetime these days. O’Donnell is a bit too reserved and that reservation could prove to be a bit of a tune out for those expecting MSNBC fireworks of the type Countdown and, to a lesser extent, The Rachel Maddow show provide. Uygur I think would follow more in that mold.

But I was expecting worse and overall I have been proven wrong. The Last Word may not be what I was expecting but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be a success. And if those numbers keep holding, I’ll have to order up some crow.

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6 Responses to “In Depth: The Last Word may Indeed be The Last Word”

  1. I may have to order up a bit of crow myself. Much to my surprise, this show has rapidly turned into an intelligent, entertaining hour. Last week I got a text from my daughter complaining about “this boring guy that screwed up my after-work MSNBC schedule.” Tonight she sent, “Hey..this guy is good!”. She’s right. I don’t know what was going on wth all the plodding hours he was doing as a sub, but this version of Lawrence O’Donnell works. Apparently Phil Griffin knew that if he was given his own show to sink or swim in..he would develop a voice worth listening to.

  2. I love that Spud appreciates Cenk Uygur so much. That guy has been a solid political fixture for me for a while now, and for somebody to keep pushing his abilities as a prime time host is great. It shows Uygur has gotten people’s attention (other than his usual followers, like myself).

    Many people on the other side might not agree with his politics, but I think they appreciate his vigor. He’s cutthroat and goes for the jugular, which I always see out of him on his radio show. I think Spud, like any casual viewers, sees his potential (correct me if I’m wrong, Spud).

    However, the part I will disagree with is… compared to O’Donnell, I don’t think Uygur would be a good fit at that hour, as you suggest. I honestly don’t think people who watch MSNBC want that style of Uygur’s to end their night. I really love MSNBC’s afternoon lineup, and I think Cenk would be perfect there instead.

    Plus, with the addition of Bashir at 3pm, it’s getting even the more better with these smart, educated hosts who get in your face (hence, the “lean forward” campaign) and ask the tough questions. Then, as the evening comes around, you get the fireball attitude from Ed, to the super political guy in Matthews, onto Olbermann with his rants, and calming down with the articulate Maddow and the well mannered LOD. I feel like it’s an equation that works and flows well.

    By the way, has anybody noticed how Ratigan has toned down his willingness to yell and constantly interrupt over his guests? He’s really become laid back and calm. I love it… but he’s still very hard hitting and asks the tough questions. Just not in an a-hole kind of way.

  3. By the way, I love LOD’s show, and I try not to miss a show. It’s just too interesting to pass up. His debate with that d-bag Michael Steele was great, too. While the RNC chairman sat there with his stupid “Fire Pelosi” bus, just laughing it up instead of answering questions that are asked of him, I still enjoyed seeing him squirm. What a clown. LOD could have been a lot harder on him, but he’s trying to leave a good impression on the bosses with a well tempered attitude. It might change down the road if viewers don’t keep coming back like they are right now, but he’s doing great for now.

  4. I’ve seen most of LOD’s shows and agree with Spud It’s been pretty good so far. A lot of the reason for that has been the guest list, some the format and some just good producing.

    TLW has, so far, gone away from that staple of many primetime shows a group of regular pundits that; while they can be very good at their jobs, tend to get predictable in their analysis. O’Donnell has had different people on for the most part and this gives the show a fresh feel every night. This practice may change as the show grows and pundits that work well with LOD emerge. I hope not.

    The O’Donnell interviewing style has gotten better with each show. LOD does one thing that many other interviewers don’t, asks followup questions. Most hosts have a list of questions and want to get through that list if at all possible. O’Donnell is smart and able to go off script and ask persistant followup questions. The interview with Steele last night is a case in point. When Steele showed he was uncomfortable with the first minimum wage question LOD picked up on it and asked not one but a series of followups that made the interview a news item.

    As for the gimmick segment; the rewrite is not as gimmicky as ‘Oddball’ or the Kent Jones stuff on RM. For the most part the ‘Rewrite’ has been well done.

    The only thing I think needs work is LOD’s tendency to be snarky & superior to guests who aren’t too bright (Levi Johnson) or try to avoid tough questions (Michael Steele).

    The show is only a week old and has already had two water cooler moments; Levi Johnson & Michael Steele; the ratings are holding up well and LOD has gotten better with each show. I’ll bet he expands to Fridays before the midterms.

    As for Uygur, his time will come and I see him as the next in line for a show perhaps one of the Hardball halves.

  5. Lawrence did a nice job letting Steele sink himself last night. Where Chris Matthews would keep hammering, LOD just let let him keep laughing at questions until it got uncomfortable. It was obvious Mr. Steele didn’t expect someone to just let him laugh as long as he wanted to. Waiting for him to stop and answer the question was like watching Jan Brewer freeze in her debate. Bizarre.

  6. Yeah Joe,and Steele kept saying “Your a funny guy Lawrence.” as if the questions were some kind of joke.

    I expect LOD will soon run into the same problem as RM now faces; that being conservative & Republican politicians being afraid to appear on his show for fear they’ll be made to look foolish by having their stupider comments challenged with facts.

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