“The Rachel Maddow Show,” now on the air just over three months, has been a pleasantly surprising addition to the MSNBC lineup, its host a refreshing contrast with the pit-bull-in-a-bar of Chris Matthews’ interrogations on “Hardball” and Keith Olbermann’s channeling of Ed Murrow by way of Bob & Ray on “Countdown.”
If we could, we’d tell her: We’re three months into this relationship, Rachel, and, well, it’s mostly working. It’s clicking. Relax. Don’t try quite so hard.
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MSNBC’s decision to put a brash, whip-smart, politically progressive on-air personality on her own show has had dividends, of course, beyond the scope of her talent. Maddow is the first openly gay or lesbian commentator in prime-time cable history, but Maddow, as some of her interviews make clear, would have risen to the top of the news-commentary crowd regardless. Smart, funny and fiercely principled are character traits that don’t answer to sexual preference, last time we checked.
Since “Maddow” launched on Sept. 8, she’s come into her own in following the tough act of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” There’s been evidence of the same kind of early jitters of any prime-time program, and some singular to Maddow. She’s sometimes self-deprecating to a fault, too apologetic, too willing to undercut her own acerbic, erudite, over-the-top sense of humor with “just kidding” or “I’m joking” — qualifying language that suggests, if only for a moment, an insecurity about both the erudition of her comic aside and the ability of her audience to recognize it for what it is.
Subconsciously, and despite working such high-profile gigs as covering the most momentous presidential election in history, Maddow still knows she’s the new hire. Beyond that intrinsically nerve-wracking situation, there’s the extra baggage of being a trailblazer, with all the expectations that trailblazing engenders.
But Maddow hasn’t been afraid to embrace the role of our surrogate on national affairs. We’re confused about the $700 billion bailout? So’s she. We’re worried about the mischief George Bush is still capable of before leaving office? So’s she. There’s a feeling of wanting to belong that’s beyond just building an audience; Maddow’s not afraid to ask politicians and experts the questions we’d ask if we had the chance, and ask them with the same emotional temperature of any concerned citizen.
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Some aspects of the show we can frankly do without. Like the Maddow show set’s Pantone-patriotic, red-white-&-blue color scheme. The look, reflecting a kind of studied immediacy, visually undercuts her authority on topics of the day. We’re not looking for Doric columns and mahogany furniture, mind you, but there must be a better, less patriotically garish backdrop for her brand of smarts.
There are issues, too, with the “Just Enough” segment, which closes the program. Until recently, Maddow preceded the segment with the statement that, paraphrasing, she needed someone to give her “just enough” pop culture news to keep her conversationally viable at cocktail parties and in the modern world. She’s joined by “pop culturist” Kent Jones, who presumes to lead Rachel through two minutes of the latest news and oddities of pop culture.
The disingenuousness of some of this exercise may have finally come home to Maddow and the show’s producers; lately they’ve gone straight to Jones for his two minutes without Maddow’s explanation of his reason for being there.
It makes sense; Maddow portraying herself as a pop-culture Luddite flies in the face of what’s happening around her. Maddow led Out magazine's "Out 100" list of the "gay men and women who moved culture" in 2008. Podcasts of her MSNBC show are available on iTunes. She's down with Twitter.
Rachel, Rachel: With facts like that in your bio, you don’t need anyone to hold your hand and lead you to pop culture. Right now, in important ways, you are pop culture.
Another thing: faster cutaways to commercials are needed; as it is the camera lingers seconds too long on Maddow, who’s justifiably self-conscious about looking into the red eye with nothing more to say until after the break.
But these are quibbles. In her maiden voyage, Rachel Maddow has so far parlayed a formidable intellect and a telegenic personality into a franchise of her own. Gender preference aside, Maddow’s blazing a whole ‘nuther trail, combining humor with civic accountability as a cable-news personality who's nothing like the Multiple Wise Men we’re used to.
Image credits: Maddow (top): Associated Press. Maddow (flag): via www.tampabay.com.