Anderson Cooper offers another version of himself on talk show ‘Anderson’

September 12, 2011

There are many Anderson Coopers now, collect them all! There is Action Anderson, the fit 44-year-old news anchor who likes to drop everything, don a gray T-shirt and chase the big story, which delivers him unto war zones and disaster sites, where, if his CNN publicists are to be believed, he Asks Questions No One Else Will Ask.

There is also Adorable Anderson, the great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the rich kid with the aw-shucks humility. This more-popular Anderson will always get in the way of Action Anderson’s journalistic idealism. Adorable Anderson is the one who hosts the ball-drop show with kooky Kathy Griffin every New Year’s Eve and is as likely to turn up in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Pee-wee Herman as he is in “tornado alley.” Adorable Anderson is the one who nearly collapsed in a teary-eyed fit of giggles last month on his nightly CNN show during a pun-laced segment about Gerard Depardieu’s public-urination misadventure. The clip of that went viral, which reignited in many viewers a complicated longing for a man some call “America’s secret boyfriend.”

You can either admit this to yourself or not. It’s the undetermined sexuality, the androgyne in the Ralph Lauren black-label suit; the catlike handsomeness; the silvery white hair and piercing blue eyes. Even cuter is how he makes a show of being terribly uncomfy with all the attention.

Now a third version: Daytime Anderson, whose eponymous talk show got off to a solid and emotional — if somewhat mealy — start in most syndication markets on Monday, devoting its hour to interviewing the grieving parents of British singer Amy Winehouse, who died in July.

Daytime Anderson wishes to somehow merge the best of Action Anderson (who is keeping his night job on CNN) and Adorable Anderson into a superior Anderson that can fill some of the highly coveted space vacated when Oprah Winfrey ended her talk show in the spring after 25 seasons. The race to fill that space has had an early victor in Dr. Oz, whose show has nabbed the majority of Oprah’s stations and time slots. (Washington’s WJLA is one of the few stations that put “Anderson” where Oprah was, weekdays at 4 p.m.)

The real missed opportunity here is that by launching his own show — a process that took a year — Cooper won’t be able to take retiring Regis Philbin’s place on “Live With Regis and Kelly.” Anyone who’s seen the hilarious chemistry between Kelly Ripa and Adorable Anderson, who pitched in as co-host during Philbin’s frequent absences, would agree.

By choosing to go somber with the Winehouses, “Anderson” didn’t give viewers too much Adorable Anderson (that will presumably come later this week, when “Jersey Shore’s” Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi takes him out for a spray tan and Depardieu grants an interview).

Instead the show smartly focused on Daytime Anderson, who more often than not will be called on to administer empathetic hugs and share more of his personal perspective than he’s previously been comfortable with.

Daytime Anderson will have to work extra-hard to appear More Like You and Me. He rides his bike to work through Manhattan, with a camera on the handlebars, as a way of introducing the day’s topic. It’s no easy feat, dodging traffic and trying to coherently sum up the Winehouse story.

The show has a gleaming set, befitting a Manhattan bachelor: Plate-glass windows several stories tall overlook Columbus Circle and Central Park. The furnishings are teaky and translucent and understated in that Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams way (except for the giant steely letters above the audience that spell out ANDERSON, visible from the street shot below).

Daytime Anderson is home, telling his audience (at least half of them appeared to be young women and girls decked out in Amy Winehouse frocks, ratted beehives and smeary Cleopatra eyes) that he “always wants [the show] to be real. . . . Something you can use in your real life.”

The interview with the Winehouse family (her parents were joined by an aunt, a great aunt and Winehouse’s boyfriend) was pretty good as far as such things go — and a safe choice for a first show. Winehouse’s father, Mitch, is a talk-show host’s dream, articulate in his grief without crumbling in tears. Early toxicology reports indicate Winehouse was not on illegal drugs when she died; her parents believe she died of going cold-turkey from alcohol.

Action Anderson stepped in, walking them through the sequence of discovering that their daughter had died and also reminding them that a further toxicology analysis is a month away, which means the truth has not yet fully arrived. Action Anderson prefers the truest version of true, which already sets him apart from, say, “Ellen,” who has a tendency not to challenge her guests and keeps things extra-light. “It’s hard for you,” Adorable Anderson stepped in and offered, during a difficult pause.

As the show drifted into the daytime talk genre’s horrible habit of larding up the back half with endless commercial breaks, Cooper also shared — as he has shared countless times before — the painful phone call he received after his brother’s suicide in 1988. “I felt like the room had collapsed.”

For all three Anderson Coopers, this sharing gets into a permanently tricky territory, which all TV news personalities recognize, that there are entirely personal stories they can tell about themselves, which in turn provide a warmer style of journalism and keep viewers coming back.

Which, when it comes to the prospect of watching “Anderson” day after day, leads to a personal question he has declined to answer many times about his sexual orientation. Cooper has said before that he decided long ago to keep his private life private, a lesson learned watching his famous mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, endure press scrutiny. Also, he doesn’t want it to get in the way of journalistic objectivity.

Fair enough, but that’s not what viewers want in an afternoon talk-show host. This job is all about spilling it — whether it’s the guest or the host. We have a ways to go before we know all of the Andersons there are to know. Exasperation with the question (is he or isn’t he?) is merely the best-marked exit door from a possibly awkward conversation. Yet, when you have (or watch) a daytime talk show in which the stated goal is “truth” and “something real,” those should be your most favorite conversations of all.

Anderson

(one hour) airs weekdays at 4 p.m. on WJLA.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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