'The Alec Baldwin Show': TV Review

An OK, but probably unnecessary, talk show throwback.
10/14/2018

Alec Baldwin's new ABC talk show kicked off with a Baldwin-dominated conversation with Robert De Niro — and with the host trying desperately to keep up with Taraji P. Henson.

No matter your thoughts on Alec Baldwin as an actor, Donald Trump impersonator, political agitator and person, it's hard to deny the amusing eclecticism of his career.

At the moment, when he isn't appearing in movies or popping up on Saturday Night Live, Baldwin is moonlighting as game show host (ABC's Match Game) and classic cinema curator (TCM's The Essentials), roles he commits to utterly. That he would next want to test his mettle as the host of an interview show will surprise no one who ever listened to his Here's the Thing podcast.

The Alec Baldwin Show premiered Sunday night to ratings lower than The CW's first evening of Sunday programming in a decade. The premiere, which technically followed a test pilot that aired after the Oscars, was an OK showcase for the throwback aesthetic Baldwin aspires to, a questionable showcase for his gifts as an interviewer and a reminder that when Baldwin dabbles, he still dabbles with full commitment.

The premiere kicked off with a retro ABC logo and a Baldwin introduction before shifting to its no-frills stage setup, consisting of the host and guest sitting in comfortable-looking gray chairs in front of a blue backdrop. The darkened room, lack of studio audience and limited selection of camera angles accentuated intimacy and even with occasional split-screens for clips, never took the focus off of Baldwin and guests Robert De Niro and Taraji P. Henson.

The choice of De Niro and Henson for the premiere episode was carefully considered, even as ABC relentlessly teased Baldwin's next interview, with Kim Kardashian, during the episode. De Niro is an interview subject of few words, prone to terse answers and frequent disinterest when promoting projects. Henson is about as polar opposite as it gets, an energetic and enthusiastic storyteller who hardly needs prompting to steer any conversation wherever she wants it going.

The ultimate validation of The Alec Baldwin Show would have been if pairing Baldwin and De Niro yielded such a high degree of comfort from the two-time Oscar winner that we came away reflecting that this was Robert De Niro as we'd never seen him before. That turns out not to be the case. Baldwin dominated the 40 minutes of the premiere carved out for his De Niro conversation. I think if you set a stopwatch, you'd probably discover that Baldwin took up roughly two-thirds of his chat with De Niro, beginning with an opening question that circled and meandered for nearly a minute before letting De Niro even respond. How much of this was Baldwin's own interviewing instinct and how much was necessity to combat a reticent guest? The Alec Baldwin Show made it possible to be unsure in a way that Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas, two clear inspirations, rarely left doubts.

All too frequently, the De Niro interview was Baldwin introducing a premise, be it related to De Niro's career or to their shared love of New York or to their common experience with midlife fatherhood, explaining the premise and then letting De Niro amiably agree. Make no mistake, this probably was De Niro at his most amiable and Baldwin occasionally instigated longer answers, which usually touched on non-acting subjects like De Niro's secondary (or maybe tertiary) career as a restaurateur or his recent outspoken political advocacy. De Niro seemed very amused and impressed by Baldwin's impressions, including an Al Pacino story, which in turn made Baldwin very pleased at how impressed De Niro was. That it was more a somewhat one-sided conversation than an interview segment wasn't always unpleasant — other than awkward reverse-shot editing in which Baldwin towered uncomfortably over a slouching De Niro — though it's a strange feeling to reflect on a lengthy interview and feel like I came away with few interesting insights into De Niro and his approach to his craft and many on Baldwin. Like, "Was that supposed to be my take-away?"

The best part of the Baldwin/De Niro interview was a completely one-sided story Baldwin told and that was then animated by Steve Brodner and Richard Borge. The story could have been told to anybody, but the art was very funny, as was the inclusion of Baldwin's impression of ex-wife Kim Basinger, especially in the context of an interview in which Baldwin's talk of his own children excluded his daughter with Basinger entirely.

Baldwin was less dominant and less generally necessary in the shorter Henson interview. He started by inquiring about her childhood and her answer probably could have filled 20 minutes without difficulty, leaving Baldwin forced to offer superfluous interjections and interruptions merely to maintain his presence in the episode. If the De Niro interview never felt like it was intended to be promotional — De Niro mentioned "Marty" Scorsese's The Irishman a couple times, but Baldwin talked at least as much about Boss Baby — the Henson interview felt like it could have been any conversation built to sell the current season of Empire. Baldwin's attempts to ask Henson about behind-the-scenes diversity on Empire were handled with some clumsiness and ended up feeling like the thing Henson wanted to discuss least, even though with a different plan-of-attack, I'm sure she'd have been more voluble. Instead, I definitely know a lot about Henson's upcoming nuptials and her husband-to-be's most famous NFL moment, something Wikipedia also probably could have told me.

Both interviews were fine and loosely interesting. Neither showed how having Baldwin, nattily dressed in a suit, as interviewer offered something better than what we get from typical late-night hosts. We saw how he handles two distinctive types of subject, albeit within the same profession. Maybe the Kardashian interview will prove more revelatory? Maybe talking to somebody whose fame he relates to less will cause Baldwin to downplay his own centrality? Given the frantic oversaturation of Sunday night TV, I'm not sure who has the time to dedicate to the loose possibility that an interview with Kim Kardashian might, but won't inevitably be, more intriguing than expected.

Airs: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)