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This Is Not the Alec Baldwin We Know and Love

The surreal seriousness of his new MSNBC show, 'Up Late"

The set of Alec Baldwin’s new MSNBC talk show “Up Late,” which premiered Friday night, is a wood-paneled diner with green leather booths and an image of the New York skyline twinkling through a fake window. There’s a ghostly quality to all those empty tables. Lonely place settings are arranged on the countertops like funereal bouquets. The first episode opens with Baldwin leaning stiffly against a booth, his expression grave. He announces his first guest—in an inexplicable choice for the opening night of a national talk show, Bill de Blasio—by saying, “I was an early supporter of de Blasio’s but the question remains: what can any mayor do about inequality on Wall Street’s home turf?” And thus begins a very strange hour of television: basically a de Blasio stump speech punctuated by Baldwin’s meaningful nods and squints.

Within the first five minutes of the interview, Baldwin cited “Surowiecki’s column in The New Yorker” and said “What I wonder sometimes is, is your quest for inequality one in which you are constantly tilting against market forces?” De Blasio’s answers were almost all paragraph-long and Baldwin, well known for his liberal activism, agreed with him pleasantly at every turn. The one flicker of tension was when Baldwin dropped the phrase “post-racial Obama years” and de Blasio said, “be careful with that phrase right there.” “You’re mischievous, sir,” de Blasio said when Baldwin asked a question about persuading Cuomo to support his tax plan. It seemed that at any moment Baldwin might swivel toward the camera and yell, “Live from New York—” But instead the scene wore on.

The first episode of “Up Late” was so self-serious that it played like performance art, as if Baldwin had set out to subvert everything we expected about what an Alec Baldwin talk show might look like. As de Blasio began talking about the broken home he grew up in, Baldwin swooped in with another policy question. (One exchange about stop-and-frisk was genuinely informative.) Baldwin seemed determined to usher in this new phase of his career by aggressively shelving all the traits that have made him so likeable as a public figure up to this point. Instead of suavely cocky, he was stern; instead of wry, he was mostly unsmiling.

History has proven that there are various ways in which a talk show can be weird when an actor takes the hosting chair for the first time. Alan Thicke’s smarmy interview show “Thicke of the Night” lasted from 1983 to 1984 and once featured a mud wrestling competition. The Chevy Chase Show (1993) was famously one of the worst talk shows of all time, mostly because Chase was so bad at small talk. “You wear so many hats. You’re involved in so many different issues, and you’re really a mom,” were words Chase once said at Goldie Hawn.

But it’s reasonable to have higher hopes for “Up Late” because Baldwin is not just an appealing presence and a smart, informed person but also a skillful host. He’s proven it on his WNYC podcast, “Here’s The Thing,” for which he has interviewed bigwigs like David Letterman, Chris Rock, and David Simon, always with easy charisma and an ear for propelling the story. Despite his habit of finishing his guests’ sentences, his style is casual and engaging without being ingratiating. And unsurprisingly, his interviews with conservatives have made for some of his most interesting shows. He asked political strategist Ed Rollins whether Republican TV talking heads were "mercenaries"; he sparred with George Will on public financing. It bodes well for the future of “Up Late,” if Baldwin would just learn to loosen up—and apply the same skepticism to guests whose politics he likes.