TV review: Keith Olbermann’s ‘Countdown’ returns — it’s as if it never left

TV critic June 20, 2011

Olbermann. You might have missed him, but rest assured, nobody missed him on television as much as he missed himself being on television. The steely stare, the Frankenstein shoulders, the grape necktie, the imperious certitude, the central vent unit strenuously set to blow at medium blast, the zings ricocheting back and forth in the echo chamber, which is now a much smaller echo chamber.

“As I was saying . . . ,” the 52-year-old liberal commentator started off, in jest, as his barely rejiggered nightly “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” show returned Monday night on the seldom-seen Current TV network. Here, Olbermann gets to call all the shots — what gets covered, what gets said, who gets attacked. He will have to answer to no voice other than his own.

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. View Archive

Olbermann picked up right where he left off when he and MSNBC abruptly parted ways five months ago. (It’s only been five months?) Michael Moore was his first guest, in the role of frequent contributor, ostensibly there to discuss the Obama administration’s wrangling of the legalities surrounding the U.S. involvement in the NATO campaign in Libya.

But really, Moore could have been there to talk about anything, so long as it was underlined with a salute to Olbermann, Capt. Courageous, the beacon of truth and all that.

“I’m honored to be your first guest on your first show,” Moore said, later making reference to Olbermann’s recently deceased parents, who the filmmaker said might well be watching their son from there hereafter, beaming with pride. (Do they even get Current there?)

In this undated photo released by Cuttent TV, commentator Keith Olbermann is shown. Olbermann's new show, Countdown With Keith Olbermann" on Current TV premiered on June 20. (Justin Stephens/AP)

“Countdown” has transported itself from MSNBC to Current without major incident or much innovation. The network, partly conceived and still headed by former vice president Al Gore, has been clear that it wants Keith to be Keith, only more so. In that case, to borrow an abused phrase that has been under Olbermann’s skin since the W. years: “Mission accomplished.” In his “special comment” (a “Countdown” trademark), Olbermann picked up the torch of freedom and justice and waved it around, quoting Harriet Beecher Stowe.

But something seemed sleepy about the show; maybe part of that has to do with the fact that it’s not 2007 anymore. Other stories dealt with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (and his wife, and conservative donors to their pet causes) and video from the Republican operatives gathering in New Orleans, which included a President Obama impersonator making jokes about Black History Month.

Does Olbermann mean for all his guests to be male (John Dean; Politico reporter Kenneth Vogel; Moore; Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas)? It’s a lot of “thank you, sir” and “thanks for being here for the first pitch” (baseball talk) from Olbermann, whose favorite word is “sir” and whose only displays of human animation tend to involve sports when they don’t involve politics.

The onscreen graphics are cleaner, stripped of the news crawls and hyperactivity that litter the edges of a cable news channel, while Olbermann and company act as if they have all the time in the world to yap. It’s somewhere between a tape of Tom Snyder and the old “Countdown”; a certain sharpness had not conveyed in Monday’s episode. Nearly 15 minutes in, as the exchange with Moore dragged on into fawning (Olbermann to Moore: “You have my gratitude, sir,” etc.), I began to worry that the Current/Olbermann contract and business plan had failed to include commercials.

Then they came: ads for cellphones, cars, prescription inhalers. Recall that this was (and is) the MSNBC way, too: Item No. 1 on the “Countdown” is always long and heavy, and then the commercial breaks come relentlessly for the remaining 45 minutes.

The filler is the same, too: The segment formerly known as “Oddball” has been renamed “Time Marches On” and still consists of snippets of Internet memes, viral videos and random weird-news snippets. Olbermann has become that guy in your office who sends too many links; he could take a lesson in this sort of humor from Tosh.0.

It’s a bit disappointing to see “Worst Persons” (“in the World?” “of the Day?”) return, replete with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Olbermann’s self-satisfied sneer, since Olbermann himself made some public gestures awhile back — somewhere between Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson — that he would tone down the segment, if not eliminate it.

It’s back. He’s back. It’s all sorts of back. The Worst Persons were, in ascending order, Sarah Palin (for trademarking her name); Fox News, for micro-
dicing the part of Stewart’s Sunday interview with Chris Wallace, in which Stewart criticized Fox News executive Bill Sammon by name.

And the Worst? The absolute Worst Person in the World for June 20? It was that woman caught on video yelling at a commuter train conductor in New York. You know, she was all over the Web days ago (eons in Twitter time), shouting about how well-educated she is? Old news but still delightful to Olbermann.

The show ended with Moulitsas and Olbermann talking about why Moulitsas believes he had been banned from appearing on Olbermann’s show at MSNBC (and other shows on the channel), having something to do with a tiff with Joe Scarborough. If this kind of talk gets you going, then boy, does Keith Olbermann have a show for you. He’ll keep talking, and you’ll keep flipping. Keep flipping. You’ll find it.

Countdown With Keith Olbermann

(one hour) airs weeknights at 8 p.m. on Current.

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