TV review: Keith Olbermann comes out swinging on Current’s new ‘Countdown’

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There’s really no reason to describe the new ‘Countdown With Keith Olbermann’ that debuted Monday night on Current TV when, not surprisingly, Olbermann has that covered already. After first guest and brand-new ‘Countdown’ contributor Michael Moore told Olbermann that no doubt ‘your parents are looking down tonight, very proud of you for keeping the good fight going,’ Olbermann used the potentially tender moment to lay out his manifesto.

‘In the briefest of special comments ... this is a newscast of contextualization, it is to be presented with a viewpoint, that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation, that the nation is losing its independence through the malfeasance of one political party and the timidity of another and that even though you and I should not have to be the last line of defense, apparently we are so we damn well better start being it.’


Just in case you were wondering if the political-news equivalent of Larry David had spent the months since his abrupt departure from MSNBC early this year mellowing on a beach somewhere, the answer would be no. He is the same fast-talking, hard-charging, unapologetically self-righteous defender of his version of liberal ideology that he always was. Only this time he has a platform with no commercial constraints -- Al Gore is the founder of the struggling Current TV and he has said that he went into his deal with the famously high-maintenance Olbermann with his eyes wide open (and this is a man who was Bill Clinton’s V.P.). So what is the new ‘Countdown’ like?

Olbermann Unleashed.

To make this clear, he came out swinging across party lines, questioning the morality and legality of the U.S. military activity in Libya and comparing President Obama’s reliance on lawyers to settle constitutional matters with a similar trick by former President George W. Bush. Former Nixon advisor John Dean showed up to discuss how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against a class-action sexual discrimination suit brought by Wal-Mart employees proves once again the court’s dangerous conservatism and to deride the Democrats’ wimpiness over recent reports that Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife had received gifts from a wealthy businessman. Having taken on the president, the Supreme Court and big business, Olbermann lightened up with an odd assortment of human interest stories -- dancing kid videos, the sale of Debbie Reynolds’ massive costume collection -- via a segment called ‘Time Marches On.’ (Reynolds’ sale included Marilyn Monroe’s famous white subway dress, providing an opportunity for Olbermann to do a breathy Marilyn impersonation, something that should not be repeated under any circumstance.)

Then the show entered more familiar territory. Conservative radio hosts were condemned for allegedly selling their opinion through embedded advertising -- ‘I’m utterly shocked by this,’ Olbermann said with his trademark smirk. His Worst Persons feature included the Republican Leadership Conference, which was chided for featuring an Obama impersonator who made racist comments.

All of which was pointed and interesting and in keeping within the rubric of Olbermann’s belief that it’s time for liberals to get as angry, vitriolic and petty as their foes. If only he weren’t quite so self-congratulatory and self-referential about it. His decision to end with Markos Moulitsas, founder of progressive and another ‘Countdown’ contributor, bordered on the unforgivable. Bringing him in ostensibly to discuss ‘the jungle’ of GOP politics, Olbermann quickly set Moulitsas up for an embedded advertisement of his own.

‘You haven’t been on cable television since May 12, 2010,’ Olbermann said with unconvincing casualness. ‘Why for?’

‘It seems like your old boss had a little bit of a problem with me,’ answered Moulitsas, laughing a bit nervously before he obligingly produced the story of how a Twitter war with Joe Scarborough led to Moulitsas’ being banished from MSNBC. ‘I found it bizarre, ‘ Moulitsas continued. ‘Yours was the most successful show on cable, yet Joe Scarborough was dictating who could be in on your show.’


If that wasn’t enough ring-kissing, he called Olbermann ‘a national treasure.’

Which he may be -- certainly Olbermann is refreshing, and singular, in the clarity of his mission, which is to defend the liberal point of view with the same sort of take-no-prisoners rhetoric that conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly have wielded so effectively. But the blatant über-medianess of his persona seems, at times, in direct conflict with that belief that ‘the weakest citizen is more important than the strongest corporation.’ A media personality is, after all, something of a corporation, and humility can be as effective a weapon as grandstanding. Not as much fun, perhaps, but just as effective.


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-- Mary McNamara