Anderson Cooper’s suave, stilted debut

The journalist launches his new daytime talk show -- but can't yet shake his newsman image

Topics: Anderson Cooper, Television, TV,

Anderson Cooper's suave, stilted debutAnderson Cooper

Anderson Cooper is not Oprah. He is not Dr. Phil, or Donahue, or Tyra. If he were, what would be the point of his new daytime talk show? We’ve already watched all of those men and women put their own indelible stamps on the art of brandishing microphones and holding hands and saying things like, “Let’s take a look at her incredible journey.” The question then, for both Cooper and his viewers, is who is “Anderson”? Not the Anderson America already knows from his years of feisty yet somehow debonair reportage for CNN, but the “Anderson” who on Monday afternoon set out to reinvent the institution of the daytime in his image.

With a statement of his love of “stories” and a promise of keeping things “real,” Cooper stood Monday before an audience of beehived, kohl eyelinered Amy Winehouse fans and introduced them to the late singer’s parents, great-aunt, stepmother and boyfriend for an hour-long exploration of her career, influence and untimely demise this past July.

It was in many ways an expectedly awkward first show: one part familiar format and one part transparent effort at somehow being distinctive. Other talk shows, for example, look like they exist in a hermetic Anywhere, USA. But with its bright, open set showcasing the New York backdrop, this enterprise is clearly not another just plain folks endeavor. Cooper’s digs fit his sleek, sophisticated demeanor and would certainly make sense on a star-studded late-night talk show, but they don’t exactly scream “Invite me into your home, America.” Likewise, Cooper’s gambit of mingling with the audience at the end seemed less an Oprah-like opportunity for hugging as a reporter bravely venturing into the field endeavor. And when he said, “We miss you, Amy Winehouse. Rest in peace,” it sounded sober enough for a newscast, but not nearly passionate enough for daytime talk.

But while much of the premiere had an expectedly fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants feel, landing the Winehouse family was undoubtedly a shrewd move. Winehouse’s story, after all, taps into a host of TV-friendly sweet spots: celebrity, substance abuse, untimely death. And Cooper, with his well-honed gift for balancing journalistic prodding with restraint and compassion, was on his game with the Winehouses, attentively coaxing them about her youthful promise and later struggles.

Speaking just two days before what would have been her 28th birthday and just in time to promote the launch of their Amy Winehouse Foundation, Winehouse’s family spoke tenderly of the girl they loved and lost, and of the consolation they’ve found. “We’re heartbroken but we’re doing OK,” her dad, Mitch, admitted. And when he called the response from the fans “the most tragic of times, and the most wonderful experience,” he made it clear where Amy got her flair for a soulful turn of phrase.

The episode was not, however, above going the extra mile in mining for waterworks, showing Winehouse’s dad weeping copiously in a corner of the screen while a montage of his daughter’s life played. Nor was it, unfortunately, long on audience connection. It was only in the show’s final few minutes that Cooper did the classic move and go out among the people, soliciting a fan to speak of how much Winehouse’s music meant to her. There was also a brief moment with a parent who’d lost a son to drugs to share the pain of having a child with addictions — a disclosure that prompted Mitch to note how as a parent, “You grasp onto the smallest slivers of hope.” It was in those moments that some glimmer of the “realness” Cooper says he aspires to began to shine through what had to that point felt like an episode of “20/20.”

In the opening minutes of his debut, Cooper declared, “I want to be different.” And previews for upcoming episodes suggest he’s game for a variety of tactics to make that happen. This week he’s trotting out Kathy Griffin and Daniel Radcliffe. He’s tanning with Snooki. And, in perhaps his savviest coup, he’s got Gerard Depardieu, who, based on the clip, will once again reduce the veteran newsman to helpless fits of giggles. He’ll also be turning serious, with an episode on women who were abandoned as infants, and tackling the painful subject of his own brother’s suicide.

There were no show-stopping, jaw-dropping, replay that again on the DVR moments, but that’d be hard to pull off on anybody’s first day on the job. Instead, for most of the episode, Cooper looked like the smartest guy in his high school feeling his way around the new territory of college — at once utterly self-assured and disarmingly lost.

Though Cooper, who is also the show’s executive producer, has generations of big shoes to fill, he’s also undeniably charismatic and occasionally quite silly. But can the trusted journalist tap into that human touch that’s been such a profound part of his best work? In the weeks to come, that will be the real test of the show: whether a man who’s endured war zones and natural disasters can find his way into those small, human dramas that are the soul of daytime talk — and the heart of any great host.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>