How CNN's Parker Spitzer Came and Got Off: The Review

Last night, our long-awaited dream finally manifested in reality: Eliot Spitzer and That Conservative White Chick With A Pulitzer came on CNN for an hour, and then, got off. Before we knew it, Larry King was farting on Lance Bass, and it was over. Reviews have ranged from the "Eh!" to the "UGH." Our critical appraisal, right here:

The Good:

Spitzer Spitz Good Opening Game: Eliot Spitzer opened the show by laying into Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, calling for him to be fired. It was a bold opening salvo, with a strong, passionate opinion, and Spitzer -- as he tends to do -- sounded downright brilliant when distilling complex matters like why he thinks Geithner should be fired to a broad audience. It was also the last time we heard such a thing.

Parker Plays The Part: Kathleen Parker never wanted to be a TV presence, nor is she meant for the necessarily screamy nature of what's now considered to be successful cable news TV, especially coming from a conservative commentator. It's why she was so decidedly charming and played a great foil to Spitzer's know-it-all gravitas that moved to quick to capture. When speaking on the matter of Sarah Palin, her perspectives were nuanced and sharp, and she kept up with Spitzer's speed -- something that will never not be a problem -- while slowing the pacing of the show down, which is for the better.

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Casting: West Wing and Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was a great "celebrity" presence to have on the show, as insufferable as he can be. Watching him call Palin an "idiot" and a "remarkably, stunningly, jaw-droppingly incompetent, mean woman" was just fun. Bringing disgraced Wall Street analyst-turned-Business Insider publisher Henry Blodget on the show -- one of Spitzer's longtime enemies -- was a great plot twist, and would've been more than that had Spitzer actually managed to get around to a substantial talk with him.

The Bad

Format: The show is the most ADD-friendly CNN has maybe ever run in the history of the network. It goes like this:

1. Spitzer and Parker fly through opening monologues on different topics. 2. Spitzer and Parker do a round-table discussion with two other people. 3. Spitzer and Parker interview someone together. 4. Spitzer and Parker interview someone else together. 5. Spitzer ditches Parker for a segment called "Unfinished Business," where he hits topics and talks to people he dealt with over the course of his time in office. 6. Parker comes back to join Spitzer for a crowded, claustrophobic table where two more guests join two of the previous guests and wax poetic on issues totally unrelated to whatever they're speaking about. 7. Fin.

Why can't it be more straightforward? They made the best cable news show for doing something else to, the format encourages a lack of engagement through a complete lack of plot, narrative arc, or cohesive narrative over the course of the show. Sticking to one topic per show -- and less guests -- would help their cause so, so much.

Casting: Besides the fact that there are too many people on the show to begin with? One of the first guests introduced is Shirly Sherrod-smearer and screamy talkmonster Andrew Breitbart, who actually sounded completely rational and sane for maybe the first time in his career, but maybe that's because he wasn't given any time to get screamy in the first place. But putting Breitbart on the show is less of a good stunt than it is a shock to CNN's viewers, who expect a little more substance than a guy like Breitbart. Also, the two guests who joined the clown car table at the end of the show has nothing to do with the rest of the show.

Depth: Again, the show has none. Spitzer's battles with Henry Blodget were epic; one man took the other down. To see the two former blood rivals glad-handing each other after a lengthy intro touting the previous bad blood between them was like watching two WWF wrestlers come out after their introductions to get in the ring, bear their teeth at each other, and discuss last night's PTA meeting they were both at. Spitzer -- whose temper is legendary -- should've blown a gasket at Breitbart for Sherrod. Instead, he let Breitbart get away with a droning, rambling, passive response, and then, on to the next segment. Topics, aside from the opening monologues, were skin-deep at best.

STFU Spitzer: The guy didn't let anyone talk over him. He crammed as many words into as little time as he could, which he'll always be doing if they don't crunch the format of the show. Spitzer needs to ease up, and also, let Parker work some of her magic! She will never not be this show's quiet weapon at this rate, and that's not why she's there, or should be there.

The Ugly

Pacing: It's truly that horrendous. Awkward cuts, no time to get into anything worth noting, everything flies by at light speed, nothing lasts more than a few minutes: if it's exciting television, it's only because of the noteworthy spike in blood pressures of the show's captive, soon-to-be-epileptic audience.

The Clown Car Table: Nothing in the last segment, that crowded round table of fright that prompted Brian Ries of Free Williamsburg to label it "primetime's clown car," nothing in that will never not be awkward. It needs to go.

The Awkward Moments Are Just Wrong: Either address the fact that Spitzer had sex with hookers, or don't. But don't ask a table of people what their "guilty pleasures" are while Eliot Spitzer sits there and squirms. Parker and the producers can be funny without being cruel, but that also requires getting it out in the open, and not creeping around the edges of the elephant in the room quietly to poke it and see how it reacts.

Overall: It was the first night. Let's see how horrendous the rest of the week is. If it's salvageable -- as in, no worse than this on the whole -- the show's producers might stand a fighting chance of making the right tweaks over the next month and reinforcing the show's strong suits: Spitzer's razor-sharp mind, Parker's charismatic cool, the chemistry between the two, and the 8PM slot to give front page news stories a charming and fiercely intelligent treatment. It could work. If nothing changes, we're calling it: Parker Spitzer is put out of its hyperactive, awkward misery by 2011, if it's lucky. Maybe even sooner.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]


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