There was no revolution Sunday as Chuck Todd debuted as host of “Meet the Press,” NBC’s venerable, venerated and vulnerable talk show. Little about Todd’s first hour redefined Sunday talk-showing as we know it.
And it was almost as if Todd, a likable and eminently sincere presence on the television screen, knew it.
“We’re living in a house as we remodel it,” he told viewers.
That little admission near the top of the show encapsulated Todd’s appeal while simultaneously laying out the challenge before him. Here was a host who was going to tell it to you straight. And here was a host who knows he needs to do something — something big, big, big — to resurrect a sagging brand.
If the show had been a holiday meal, Todd would have been the host apologizing for the quality of the dinner before it was served. Yes, the turkey and yams sound like the usual fare, but I didn’t have much time to prepare! Come back tomorrow and I’ll dazzle you with the leftovers!
No one who watched “Meet the Press” on Sunday will be able to question Todd’s preparedness or his clout. Delivering an interview with President Obama for his first show was a major coup. And as he questioned the president on the big issues of the moment — the threat from the Islamic State, immigration and Washington dysfunction — it was clear that Todd was not reading from some script written by the crew back in the studio. The worst of the television hosts can sometimes sound like puppets, their jaws controlled by off-stage puppeteers. Chuck Todd ain’t no puppet.
Obama can be a tough interview. He can go on and on, parsing and re-parsing his arguments, and Todd, like most interviewers, hewed toward politeness by not interrupting — at least not too much.
Even then, Obama was adept at fending him off. “I’ll get to that,” the president said more than once, evading Todd’s efforts at follow-ups like a running back stiff-arming a would-be tackler.
But Todd also knows how to keep his balance in an interview and not get knocked off his line of questioning. When Obama went down a meandering path to explain his controversial delay of executive action on deportations of undocumented immigrants, the host called him on it.
“It looks like election-year politics,” Todd said.
And Todd certainly transmitted the message that he was not going to be subservient to whiz-bang technology when he showed Obama a folded piece of paper with a checklist of tricky political issues. Obama had to lean forward in his chair and squint to see the tiny script (the television audience was shown the list at the bottom of the screen). The move harked back to the style of the beloved “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, and seemed more than a little derivative.
It was less-than-perfect staging, but it felt real. Just like the host. He’s the kind of guy who writes out lists and calls politicians on the stuff they say. That’s Todd — a substantive guy who isn’t caught up in pretense or image.
Thankfully, given Obama’s tendency to filibuster during interviews, Todd smartly decided to break away from the taped sit-down more than once for instant analysis from his panel of expert commentators, which included the familiar (NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Joe Scarborough) as well as some edgier and more youthful choices, such as BuzzFeed Washington bureau chief John Stanton, a former bouncer who goes by the name “DCBigJohn” on Twitter, and The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson.
Todd, channeling the nation’s annoyance with all things D.C., also introduced a regular segment called “Who Needs Washington?” The featured highlighted Oklahoma City’s rebirth in a glowing canned report from NBC’s Kevin Tibbles, followed by an in-studio interview with three mayors.
“Meet the Press” was once the king of Sunday political talk shows, but it fell into last place during the tenure of David Gregory, the host Todd replaced. The pressure on Todd is enormous. In a tweet moments before the show, NBC News President Deborah Turness hailed the start of the “Chuck Todd era.”
Just what that era will bring remains to be seen. But it was refreshing to see Stanton — an insightful and unexpurgated commentator — sitting on Todd’s panel, his sleeves rolled up to reveal generously tattooed forearms.
It will take more than a former bouncer with awesome tats to save “Meet the Press.” But in a genre that sometimes has the feel of a wax museum, it’s a start.