Whoever at MSNBC came up with the title of Brian Williams’s new show, which premiered on the Comcast-owned cable outlet Tuesday night, either lacks self-awareness or possesses a roguish sense of humor.
The 11th Hour, as the previously disgraced and currently redeemed anchorman’s 11 p.m. program is called, is a zanily precise description of where the 57-year-old William’s career was, metaphorically speaking, during the early months of last year.
In other words, or so it seemed, BriWi was in the final stages professional extinction.
In February 2015, he was punished with a six-month suspension without pay from the NBC Nightly News—where he had reigned as the top-rated network anchor for a decade—after he was caught telling tall tales and otherwise fibbing about his Iraqi warzone, Hurricane Katrina and other exaggerated journalistic adventures.
Williams was never given the chance to reclaim his iron throne, which is now persuasively occupied by Lester Holt.
It wasn’t until last September, after a gently orchestrated televised grilling by his NBC News colleague Matt Lauer on the Today show, designed to let Williams confess to his sins, apologize to the viewing public and restore some semblance of his credibility, that NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, a longtime pal and former NBC News president who had left for greener pastures in 2001, permitted Williams back on the air.
Williams’s return to television, sporadically anchoring breaking news events on cable and, more recently, primary night pundit panels and convention coverage, has gone well enough that Lack, who championed Williams’s career during his first stint running the news division 20 years ago, decided it was time to give his friend his own weeknight platform, albeit a temporary one.
As Williams informed his audience during the debut Tuesday night, “We will be here at this hour from now until election day, when we will cancel ourselves.”
So this impermanent “pop-up” offering, as Williams described it—whose title is actually a tad misleading, since it airs for only half the 11th hour—can be thought of as his tryout for complete rehabilitation. If he doesn’t mess up and achieves respectable ratings, he will likely be rewarded with his very own branded production, maybe even with his name in the title.
But considering that MSNBC has already been airing wall-to-wall political coverage for many months, well before the 2016 presidential campaign entered its final 62 days—from Morning Joe to MTP Daily through Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (The 11th Hour’s lead-in)—it’s difficult to conceive of any reason to put this new show on the air other than BriWi’s resurrection.
The inaugural installment—featuring NBC News/MSNBC political correspondents Hallie Jackson and Kasie Hunt, and usual suspects like Washington Post writers Robert Costa and Eugene Robinson, and former Republican operatives Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt, reciting many of the same insights they’d been sharing on MSNBC for much of the day—offered little that was fresh, although Hunt teased some juicy gossip that Hillary Clinton’s debate prep will feature somebody playing Donald Trump, she just didn’t know yet who that will be.
But the premiere did highlight BriWi’s anchor-manic delivery and his amazingly furrowed eyebrows, which are dramatically asymmetrical—his right one slightly more elevated than the left—and evoke gigantic, twisted brackets [as in the punctuation marks] that have toppled over onto their sides.
Especially when raised in a display of piercing skepticism, those eyebrows are fascinating.
Wearing a dark suit, a boldly striped tie and a very serious expression as he fiddled throughout with a felt-tipped pen, Williams looked authoritative while prompting his panelists to repeat their talking points. An endless array of American flags, visible on a backdrop of big screens, plus snare drum-punctuated theme music between segments, signaled the gravity of the occasion.
Williams plugged Wednesday night’s scheduled NBC/MSNBC-hosted national security “Commander in Chief” forum featuring Clinton and Donald Trump, drew out Jackson and Hunt on Trump’s teleprompter finesse at rallies and Clinton’s airborne press gaggles on the new campaign plane, and did a segment on the latest “confusing” public opinion polls—all subjects that had been covered by the previously broadcast shows.
Williams’s pre-taped interview with Ohio’s #NeverTrump Republican Gov. John Kasich, an also-ran presidential candidate, revealed nothing that Kasich hasn’t already said on MSNBC and elsewhere for many weeks, even if it was fun to read the on-screen chyron during the segment, “KASICH: ‘I HAVE NO REGRETS AT ALL’ ”—something Williams no doubt wishes he could say for himself.
In the final segment of The 11th Hour, Williams performed one of his patented tone poems on, well, a bunch of things: the meaning of the phrase “come back,” as when Clinton “comes back” on her plane to chat with the traveling press, Clinton’s recurring cough, the fact that campaign reporters no longer aisle-surf on snack trays during takeoffs and landings but still roll oranges with goofy questions written on them to the staff area up front, and some other stuff I can’t remember.
Anyway, by this time I had already started to fixate on the headline crawl at the bottom of the screen: ‘FOX CONFIRMS IT HAS SETTLED A SEXUAL DISCRIMINATION LAWSUIT BROUGHT AGAISNT ROGER AILES… BROCK TURNER, THE FORMER STANFORD SWIMMER CONVICTED OF ASSAULTING AN UNCONSCIOUS WOMAN, REGISTERS AS A SEX OFFENDER… PHYLLIS SHLAFLY DEAD… CHEVY CHASE CHECKS INTO REHAB FACILITY FOR WHAT HIS PUBLICIST CALLS A ‘TUNEUP’…”
Brian Williams’s tuneup proceeded apace.