Friday, October 11, 2013

Fridays with Alec: MSNBC really pushes the envelope

AT FIRST or second blush, it looks like a win-win for all concerned: Alec Baldwin, the veteran actor best known for his television role in NBC’s “30 Rock,” and his real-life role as short-fused hellraiser and sworn enemy of the paparazzi, was looking for a new challenge. After all, an Oscar-nominated actor can’t go on being a pitchman for Capital One forever.

MSNBC, the cable network always in the process of reinventing itself, was eager to continue the rescue of its weekend lineup from the wasteland of repurposed doc-style tours of America’s prisons.

Tonight at 10 p.m. eastern time, we’ll see what happens when idleness meets opportunity. That’s when MSNBC debuts “Up Late With Alec Baldwin,” a talk show hosted by Baldwin and set to feature interviews with a variety of newsmakers.

MSNBC has been teasing the show for the last few weeks. In the first promo spot announcing the show, Ed Schultz, host of “The Ed Show” (and a man with his own pugnacious reputation) announces that the network, “responding to criticism,” had hired Baldwin, “a man who will address the great issues of our time while keeping his emotions in check, a man who values reason over passion and provides a soothing voice for these troubled times.”

The camera pans over to an effusive Baldwin, grinning like a madman and gripping Schultz’s shoulder.

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That ad was a sly, tongue-in-cheek allusion to Baldwin’s reputation as a man with a serious temper. On Sunday, MSNBC followed that promo with another one, this one featuring Baldwin clearly intended to downplay the outrageous in his biography — Baldwin playing it straight.

“My career began in 1980 right here at 30 Rock, on an NBC soap opera,” Baldwin says, straight-faced, no-nonsense. “And now I have my own show on MSNBC where I talk to newsmakers about issues that matter to me, as well as cultural icons about their lives and careers. I hope you’ll join me.”

That’s it. No snark, no foaming at the mouth. But “keeping his emotions in check”? Baldwin in circumspect mode is a far cry from the Alec Baldwin who apologized after he used homophobic slurs to violently threaten a British reporter who said his wife Hilaria Thomas had tweeted about wedding presents and TV appearances during James Gandolfini's funeral in June.

“If put my foot up your f**king ass, George Stark, but I'm sure you'd dig it too much,” one tweet read. “I'm gonna find you George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I'm gonna f**k you... up,” he added.

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AND THERE’S the Alec Baldwin involved in a Feburary dustup with a New York post photographer, Baldwin reportedly made racist remarks, calling him a “coon” and a “crackhead.” “He was saying some serious racist stuff,” New York Post photographer G.N. Miller said.

And don’t forget the Alec Baldwin who went off on a photographer in August in University Place, in lower Manhattan, days after his wife gave birth to their daughter.

Or the Alec Baldwin who shoved a New York Daily News photographer outside Manhattan's Marriage License Bureau in June 2012.

Or the Alec Baldwin thrown off an American Airlines flight in December 2011 for refusing to turn his phone off while playing Words With Friends.

Or the Alec Baldwin who called Ireland, his then 11-year-old daughter by Kim Basinger, a “rude and thoughtless little pig” in 2007.

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With this and other personnel changes, schedule shifts, special events and indicators of programming style, MSNBC has clearly cast its lot with a younger, more progressive and diverse demographic. Throughout the network schedule, from morning to evening, weekdays to weekends, the mix of anchors, show guests and analysts is a testament to MSNBC’s faith in the end of the white male news anchor template.

“Disrupt With Karen Finney,” featuring the former Democratic National Committee official, was recently added to the Saturday and Sunday lineup, joining “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a news analysis program hosted by its namesake, a columnist for The Nation; and “Up With Steve Kornacki,” hosted by the Salon senior political writer, in the weekend programming stable.

The Baldwin show is the most recent of MSNBC’s two years of schedule shifts meant to build its weekend bona fides, as it moves away from the “Lockup” prison-life series and its “Caught on Camera” programs documenting the exploits of everyday people, well, caught on camera.

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Baldwin, who briefly considered running for mayor of New York (what a campaign that woulda been) and who reportedly backs progressive candidate Bill de Blasio (a guest on tonight’s premiere), will likely bring more of the liberal perspective that is MSNBC’s stock in trade.

“Up Late” is the network’s new bid to “Lean Forward.” But given Baldwin’s proven reputation for going off the rails, it’ll be curious to see whether this latest MSNBC programming move pushes the envelope — or rips it wide open. Stay tuned. And brace yourselves.

Image credits: Schultz and Baldwin, Up Late title card and MSNBC logo: © 2013 MSNBC. Baldwin and photographers (both images): New York Daily News.

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