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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Let Kornacki Be Kornacki

I was really pleased to hear that Steve Kornacki was taking up "Up" after Chris Hayes moved on to MSNBC's weekday primetime lineup. I like them both as pundit types and think they have a common affable intellectualism about them that made the idea of the transition between them make obvious abstract sense.

Now, I think Hayes' "All In" is an even better show than his "Up" was, indeed I think it is now one of the most thoughtful shows on the Harringtonian left wing of the possible on air today, surpassing Rachel Maddow and Amy Goodman at his best, and I think that has been a marvelous surprise. I think the limitation to one hour from his weekend show's two hour format has imposed a discipline on Hayes that makes him less likely to suffer reactionary foolishness in his guests for long and it also has made his progressive activist impulse a more propulsive force in his show.

On the other hand, I have been rather disappointed in the post-Hayes "Up with Steve Kornacki." His straight to camera editorial pitches have been pretty good, and they have also been different in ways I expected them to be, drawing on historical anecdotes and a sometimes slightly obsessively bonkers level of partisan inside baseball stuff. But as a discussion moderator Kornacki seems to be too much in his head. He seems to plot out his shows in advance segment by segment and then to be more interested in making sure the show plays out according to spec than he is interested in the insights and serendipities that arrive in the play of conversation as it happens. Kornacki is forever shutting down guests whose arguments organically lead the discussion into places Kornacki has not charted in advance, often saying that this or that topic will be taken up in a later segment, or he will end a segment not by reacting to the substance of a comment but by declaring it an excellent "tease" or "tee up" for the next segment. This doesn't happen occasionally, mind you, this happens repeatedly, in every show, often many times a time.

People watch these shows to hear interesting, knowledgeable, provocative, funny commentary on and contextualization of current events (don't they?), but I feel sure that almost nobody but Steve Kornacki is watching to enjoy the smooth machineries through which the material form of discussion maps onto some Platonic ideal of the discussion Steve Kornacki has in his head. Remember when I said I was pleased to hear that Kornacki was helming this weekend show? That was because I think he is very smart and likeable, and all of that is still true. There is no reason to give up on "Up." I have noticed that when Krystal Ball -- who was one of his co-hosts on MSNBC's rather hit-or-miss Afterschool Special of a commentary show, "The Cycle" -- as one of his weekend roundtable guests a more comfortable and effective dynamic emerges in which she seems to facilitate the discussion that actually seems to be happening while allowing Kornacki to go off on his sometimes unexpected but usually quite useful weedy tangents into history or statistics. When Ana Marie Cox is on the show I have noticed a similar dynamic often occurs to the benefit of the show. I leave the gender politics in play in such a phenomenon to the readers to chew on in the Moot.

Perhaps Kornacki era "Up" really should have a co-host who can more responsively and responsibly articulate the real-time flow of the conversation but also "Let Kornacki Be Kornacki." There is a place for his brand of doofy punditocratic pedantry, and he really is an incomparably more congenial on-screen figure than Ezra Klein who for me is off-puttingly stumbly and petulant and who I suspect would be next in line for an "Up"-rating. I also happen to think the show is weighted down by the vestigial echoes of its Hayesian incarnation in ways that make it harder to judge the "Up" that's up on its own merits -- I mean, the jokes about the pastry plate, the sometimes joyless ritual of the what do we know now what should we know closing segments may need to be replaced by new ceremonials more attuned to Kornacki's unique temperament, not because they are bad things for the show that was but because they may be standing in the way of good things for the show that is.

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