Critic's Notebook: Debuting in Bill O'Reilly's Time Slot, Tucker Carlson Struggles to Fill Big Shoes

Tucker Carlson - Getty - H 2017
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Caitlyn Jenner was among the guests on the first broadcast of 'Tucker Carlson Tonight,' which was alternately underwhelming and grating.

Tucker Carlson made his debut broadcast in Bill O’Reilly’s old time slot Monday night with his show Tucker Carlson Tonight, featuring Caitlyn Jenner among the guests. Carlson began the show by paying tribute to his former colleague, saying, “He set a high bar, and I’m going to do my best to meet it.” He seemed sincere, but it wasn’t hard to tell that he was doing a Snoopy dance inside his head.

Speaking of O’Reilly, is it too early to say that we miss the big guy? Sure, he’s obnoxious, but at least he owns it. And he looks the part. He’s like the conservative uncle with whom you get into a heated argument every year at Thanksgiving dinner that ends with him calling you a meathead. Carlson, on other hand, gives off the vibe of an arrogant frat boy after a long night of partying. He conducts the bulk of his interviews remotely, with the result that he spends much of the show staring directly into the camera, looking vaguely confused.

The opening segment was festooned with the phrase “Trump Wins Again,” which is not something you hear very often since he was elected. It referred to a recent poll showing that Donald Trump would still beat Hillary Clinton if the presidential election were held today, only by a bigger margin. It’s hard to say what that means exactly, but hey, if it makes Republicans feel better, why not?

The first guest was Richard Goodstein, a former advisor to Clinton during her 2008 campaign, who’s not exactly on the A-list of Democratic spokespersons. Carlson peppered him with questions about the problems plaguing the party, even making the assertion that it was “openly hostile to working people.” The exchange showcased Carlson’s passive-aggressive style of interrogation, in which he alternates between asking hard-edged questions, gently retreating (“I’m not going to keep torturing you here”) and expressing fake bafflement (“This is getting too big for me!”).

Then came Michael Malice, who has the perfect name for a Fox News guest. An expert on North Korea and a Kim Jong Il biographer, Malice analyzed the current escalation in tensions. Discussing Trump’s heated rhetoric, he suggested that the president was merely pretending to be erratic (If that’s the case, Trump is really, really good at it) and that the president was engaged in a “good cop/bad cop” strategy in partnership with the Chinese. So you can expect North Korea to soon break down and deliver a tearful confession, assuming that they haven’t asked for a lawyer.

The next guest was Mike Rowe, the host/narrator of such television shows as Dirty Jobs and Deadliest Catch. Rowe was there to talk about the latest salvo in, as he puts it, “the war on work,” which is Nordstrom selling $425 distressed jeans adorned with fake mud. “As a country, what the hell are we doing?” Rowe asked exasperatedly. (Ironically, it was the same question I was asking myself as I watched the show).

Then it was finally time for Jenner, and thank goodness, because God knows she hasn’t gotten enough media attention. Jenner was on hand to plug her new book, The Secrets of My Life, which, if it were really true to its title, would consist entirely of blank pages. Carlson quizzed her about having voted for Trump despite Clinton’s popularity with the LGBT community. Jenner, who has made no secret of her conservative views, responded that she was not a “one-issue voter.”

“My loyalties are to my community,” she declared, before expressing disappointment with Trump and anger at such figures as Jeff Sessions, whom she described as “anti-LGBT” (an observation which falls under the heading of “Duh!”). “I want the Republican party to do a better job,” Jenner added, which is something we can all agree on. When Carlson tried to press her on other issues, such as the recent controversy over a transgender female weightlifter, Jenner expressed annoyance that they weren’t talking more about her book.

The rest of the broadcast featured brief segments devoted to UC Berkeley’s attempt to ban Ann Coulter from speaking, accompanied by the graphic “Campus Craziness”; an interview with the author of the book The Golden Passport, which argues that Harvard Business School is responsible for everything that’s wrong with the economy; a discussion called “Top That,” in which two Fox contributors competed to describe the craziest story of the day (ironically, the one about a group of psychiatrists declaring that Trump is mentally ill was the winner); and a fluff piece, “The Friend Zone,” in which Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer rhapsodized about having traveled the world for a year when he was in his twenties.  

The hour’s rapid-fire, attention-deficit pacing was ultimately more exhausting than enlightening. At the conclusion, Carlson assured us that his show will always be “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and groupthink.” When that policy was going to start, he didn’t say.