Lawrence O’Donnell has served as chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee under the late Democratic New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a writer for “The West Wing,” an actor on “Big Love,” and a columnist for New York magazine. He has been on MSNBC’s payroll in some capacity since its 1996 launch, and recently has been sitting in as Keith Olbermann’s frequent substitute host for “Countdown,” which airs at 8 p.m., and, until this week, reran at 10. On Monday night, O’Donnell got his own show.
With Monday night’s debut of “The Last Word,” MSNBC now has a solid block of original programming between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. on weeknights. The network’s marquee program, “Countdown,” is followed by “The Rachel Maddow Show,” hosted by another former Olbermann guest host. If this keeps up, Olbermann’s intern will soon be hosting an hour-long show at 1 am.
Sure enough, the “The Last Word” is a wonkish mix of politics, policy and entertainment in the Olbermann and Maddow mold. Though O’Donnell is an ardent liberal — he recently told the New York Times it was “impossible to be to my left on health care” — he often comes off on air as more level-headed than his MSNBC peers, perhaps because of his experience in government has taught him not to expect the moon from legislators.
Last night’s debut show featured an interview with Vice President Biden, a “get” that must have caused a pang of jealousy in Olbermann, who interviews the same four left-leaning journalists over and over. O’Donnell’s questions for Biden were mostly centered on political tactics rather than policy. The tone was friendly. At one point O’Donnell offered Biden the chance to “extend his remarks,” which no one has had to ask Biden to do since the early 1970s.
The segment concluded with Biden chummily referencing their “mutual friend” Moynihan. Then the two shared a chuckle over how the senator’s wife really ran the show. It’s funny because it’s not true! When Rachel Maddow interviews Hillary Clinton and laugh condescendingly about how Nancy Pelosi’s husband is really the one in charge, maybe this will stop being such a patronizing trope. But I digress.
The second segment consisted of a somewhat agonizing in-studio interview with Keith Olbermann, who didn’t look happy to be there. When O’Donnell lost the teleprompter for what felt like 10 minutes, but was probably about 30 seconds, he gamely said “Keith, live television is the only place mistakes can happen.” Olbermann grimly replied, “You asked for it.”
After playing the second part of his pre-taped interview with Biden, O’Donnell debuted a segment which seems destined to be a regular. Called “The Rewrite,” it featured O’Donnell picking apart House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s criticism on “Fox News Sunday” of Stephen Colbert’s in-character testimony last week in front of Congress. This gave O’Donnell an excuse to replay a significant chunk of an old segment from “The Colbert Report,” which is a sad trick Olbermann also relies on often. It’s not a good sign that on the first night of his own show, O’Donnell resorted to replaying segments of a better show.
O’Donnell then delivered the opening of the speech he thought Hoyer should have given — “the Rewrite,” see? In O’Donnell’s fantasy, Hoyer grandiosely commends Colbert for delivering the most powerful defense of migrant worker rights in decades, because that is a realistic thing for Steny Hoyer to say on Fox. “The Rewrite” is a promising concept, but it’s hard to avoid seeming pompous when delivering a speech in someone else’s name, and your whole point is that your version is better.
The final segment on “The Last Word” was a replay of a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit about Christine O’Donnell – yes, another extended comedy clip – followed by a brief interview with SNL writer Jim Downey, apparently cut short by Biden’s lengthy appearance.
Overall, the first “Last Word” was a bit of a let-down for those of us who love to hate pompous left-wing TV. O’Donnell has a matinee idol’s wide-set eyes and dramatic blond sweep of hair. He is pretty to look at, but he seemed a bit uncomfortable on set, sometimes leaning out of the frame and stumbling over his words (not to mention the teleprompter). Some of that could be first-night jitters, but so far he also lacks Olbermann’s self-righteous anger and Maddow’s smug humor. That’s good for public discourse and for O’Donnell’s blood pressure, but might prove a liability in setting apart his show from the competition.
The guest list for the rest of the week is a mixed but impressive bag that includes Michael Bloomberg, Bob Woodward, Meghan McCain, Levi Johnston, and David Axelrod. The real question is who the viewers are.