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.