Saturday, October 19, 2013

‘Up Late’: A new Friday night light

WE HELD our collective breath with the news about “Up Late With Alec Baldwin,” the new MSNBC show on Friday nights and hosted by the celebrated actor and paparazzi bête noire. Would this talk show be set in a boxing ring? Would the set be large enough to accommodate a duel at twenty paces? Were there personal-injury lawyers sequestered just out of public view?

We needn’t have worried. “Up Late,” which debuted last Friday in its regular 10 p.m. ET time slot, is an intelligent refreshing counter to the news-and-politics content of MSNBC’s main program diet, and (God knows) an oasis of uplift and wit compared to the “Lockup” prison-documentary series that’s been MSNBC’s weekend staple food for way too long.

Baldwin, interviewing some of his favorite people on a set designed to look like a booth at a homey waterfront diner, displays a range of both passions and interests that’s thoroughly reflected in a thoughtful choice of guests, and an equally thoughtful line of inquiry. This may be Alec Baldwin on his really best behavior, brandishing a restless intellect and a fearless interview style. Two shows in and it’s already clear that he’s good at this. Sometimes, very good.

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The first program, an in-depth interview with New York City Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, showed Baldwin alternating his questions to the possible next mayor of New York, from inquiries about policy (the stop-and-frisk NYPD, housing, pre-K education) to others about New York in the Bloomberg era, romance and the prospect of working with Albany (another kind of romance altogether).

Baldwin has the chops of a good interviewer. For example: De Blasio tried to get slippery when Baldwin tried to lock him down on his position on legalization of marijuana; the candidate finally retreated to a modified-hangout support of decriminalization for small amounts of pot, but nothing more.

It was the kind of disclosure that the man most likely to be the next mayor of New York City probably wouldn’t have been pressed to make by another reporter, smitten with the candidate’s deeply communicable charm. And it might have been the kind of question de Blasio thought he could duck given Baldwin’s support for de Blasio (widely known since last year). The fact that Baldwin didn’t let his choice for mayor off the hook points to a gloves-off approach that gives this actor real bona fides as a reporter.

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THE DE BLASIO performance wasn’t a one-off. In Friday night’s sitdown in the banquette confessional, Baldwin talked with Debra Winger, the three-time Oscar nominated actress who basically turned her back on Hollywood, opting out of the business to concentrate on family, to pursue a sidelight as an anti-fracking activist, and because parts she was offered were “so small” compared to the more expansive dramas of her own real life.

Baldwin pushes her in the interview about her choice — goads her not with prosecutorial malice, but with exactly the same kind of emotional detachment a good interviewer needs to have from the guests.

Winger volunteered that she’s contemplating a return to the business. “I see young filmmakers that I really, really want to work with,” she said. “I think there’s a world that I want to play in.” Who knew?

Later, Baldwin relates one how unnamed famous actor told him that the Internet “represents the death of forgetting.”

Winger begs to differ. “I don’t think it’s the death of forgetting,” she said. “I think it’s the birth of forgetting, because we don’t have to remember anything.” It’s broad, big-picture discussions like this that you don’t encounter often on television.

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YOU CAN see Baldwin’s talents on the surface of the table he sits at with his guests. It’s not crowded with papers filled with questions prepared beforehand. He’s not afraid, in a way, to wing it, to keep the questions in his head, firing genially at will across the leather banquette in a way that defines “off-the-cuff.”

Baldwin holds his subjects’ attention with his intense gaze, and with a curiosity apparently grounded in the belief that one good question elicits a good answer that often leads to another good question. This is the stuff of the best interviews: a probing serve-and-volley, a charitable jousting that’s ultimately not so much an interview as it is a conversation — one of his stated objectives

Like so many other talk-show hosts, Baldwin sometimes steps on his own questions by jumping in halfway through his guests’ answers, prodding unnecessarily, not quite satisfied with letting their responses emerge organically from his questions. He won’t get out of his own way. But let’s face it: when you’re playing your first games in the majors, you tend to swing for the fences every time up. In a talk-show format, a certain amount of interrogative aggression is expected. Baldwin should find that right balance of attack and repose before long.

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Baldwin established a mission statement after his first show: “I want to find out what drives people, what inspires artists and performers to pursue truth and beauty in their work, why smart, ambitious people devote their lives to seemingly impossible causes ...”

His first programs show he’s off on the right foot in achieving this, and in helping MSNBC advance the program format taking hold in its weekend programming.

Baldwin’s show, “Disrupt With Karen Finney” (featuring the former Democratic National Committee communications director) and “Up With Steve Kornacki” (hosted by the Salon senior editor), have a style that runs counter to much of MSNBC’s Monday-Friday daytime and prime-time programming — rhetorical rugby scrums, split-screen shouting matches, everybody jumping in at once and nobody saying anything that anybody can understand.

 If MSNBC decides to import more of the weekend philosophy into the Mon-Fri shows, the “Lean Forward” network might actually commit some news of its own: by leaning outside the frame of frantic, breathless convention, by investing in more programming that changes the temperature of the national tele-conversation. We’d stay up late, and get up early, for more of that.

Image credits: All images: From “Up Late With Alec Baldwin”: © 2013 MSNBC.

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