On Monday night, CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker made good on his threat and returned "Crossfire," the show that Jon Stewart famously and accurately described as "hurting America," to CNN's lineup. And I have good news for everyone! This show is not going to hurt America. In fact, it's mostly harmless. Unless of course, you are easily bored to death and lack access to a heavy object you can throw at your teevee in an emergency. In that rare instance, the show is deadly.
This revamped "Crossfire," of course, wasn't supposed to make its bow so soon, but in an act of comical arrogance, it was decided that events in Syria made returning CNN's famously fusty panel show to the airwaves critically important for the good of the nation. And so, CNN gathered two hosts and two senators to offer some tranquilized jabber at each other about the day's developments in the Syria saga.
The results were astoundingly dull. I was right to anticipate that the show would be terrible, but I was dead wrong when I anticipated a "Beltway-centric faux-bloodsport crapshow." Yes, it is still a Beltway-centric crapshow, but there is no blood being drawn here. Even if this show accidentally nicks a vein, there's no pulse to pump the blood anywhere. You will find a more electric atmosphere inside an empty can of Pringles. It is long and tedious, like "The Mill On The Floss."
In fact, the most hilarious moment of the show -- literally, the only interesting thing that happened in a half-hour that seemed to leach all coherence from space and time -- came when host Newt Gingrich bumbled the name of the show and called it "Ceasefire." So, we at least notched one "Kinsley gaffe."
Part of the problem here is the way the show is staged. The producers, for whatever reason, have decided to place the show's hosts -- in this case Obama flack-turned-Bank Of America lobbyist Stephanie Cutter and failed presidential candidate Newt Gingrich -- at the center of the tableau, practically sitting in one another's laps.
I guess it was done this way to get both hosts in a single shot, but as the show went on, CNN deployed these stark and uncomfortable side-shots, which meant you got close-ups of one host's profile as the other host was talking. And the weird closeness all but ensured that no real sparks would fly. Instead of argument, you got Cutter giving Gingrich the side-eye, and Gingrich side-eyeing her right back. Maybe they should just call this show, "CNN PRESENTS 'SIDE-EYE' [STRING OF EMOJI]."
But Monday night's hosts were terrible in their own rights. Cutter is shockingly bad at television. She has no feel for the role of host, and struggled all night long with the basics of reading the auto-cue and hitting her camera marks. Then, she spent most of her time busily and pointlessly interjecting and interrupting whenever her guests -- in this case Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) -- were speaking. But this is how Cutter apparently decided to "win" at "Crossfire."
And, wow, I can't even imagine what the suits at CNN are making of Gingrich's performance. Remember, Gingrich is the guy who wanted to do Lincoln-Douglas debates, because he's so terribly confident in his own ability to speak extemporaneously for hours on end. Well, I can only posit that at some time between the 2012 presidential campaign and the premiere of "Crossfire," Gingrich fell out of love with the sound of his own voice. (Maybe the sound of his own voice is in a hospital, bedridden, and Newt is interested in romancing the sounds of other people's voices?)
The sheer number of minutes that Gingrich sat on the teevee, not saying things, was simply staggering. I could not fathom it. The best explanation I can offer is that he has come to the show during a period of his life where his goal is to underachieve, and he sees "winning" at "Crossfire" as just sitting there and saying as little as the show's producers will allow. I mean, the guy basically just spent the bulk of the show chilling in his chair with a sanguine expression on his face, collecting his CNN paycheck, and not worrying about a thing.
Neither host, however, seemed to know how to push the conversation along so that it went anywhere. Both hosts, in fact, managed to ask their guests the same question twice, allowing Menendez and Paul ample opportunities to keep repeating their positions, over and over again. Cutter and Gingrich followed suit, repeating their own positions, over and over again. It was like watching four people try to filibuster CNN.
And the show's hosts didn't seem at all ready, or even interested, in contending with the assertions their guests made. This led to an extraordinary moment in the second half of the show, when Gingrich finally summoned the energy to ask an interesting question of Menendez: "If, in fact, you go ahead with votes in the House, and if in fact the president loses decisively, is he then constrained from acting? Having come to the Congress, is he bound by the Congress?"
Menendez responded, "I think the president -- that's a decision the commander in chief has to make," adding, "He'll have to determine that question."
You know, it's not every day you see a high-ranking member of Congress go on teevee, aggressively cast himself as a non-entity, and essentially say, "Oh, I don't expect the president to consider what we say or abide by it." And yet, here you had Gingrich -- a guy who used to be the speaker of the House, who made his name tangling with a president of another party -- and he doesn't even bat an eyebrow at Menendez confessing that it is okay with him if Obama opts to just ignore Congress if it ends up not granting him the authority to use force in Syria.
Nevertheless, "Crossfire" didn't achieve the apotheosis of stupidity until the end of the show, when Cutter and Gingrich returned to make good on a promise to present "something we agree on." I kind of thought the point of "Crossfire" was to sow disagreement at every turn, but I decided to stick it out, in genuine interest of finding out where Cutter and Gingrich had found common ground.
It was not worth getting excited about. Here is a list of the things upon which they agreed:
1. "Today's development with Russia is a great development."
2. "The president has a big mountain to climb in terms of getting Congress to approve his resolution."
3. This is a "tumultuous period of change."
4. "The last 48 hours, so many different things were happening."
5. "It's going to be interesting to see what his speech is like tomorrow night."
Terrific. Cutter and Gingrich both agree that "Syria...hoo, boy, I don't know, seems pretty tough." They go on to agree that there was some stuff that happened in the news that was really interesting, and that there could be some stuff that happens in the future that also might be really interesting. I'm so glad CNN pointed some teevee cameras at these banal observations and beamed them around the world.
The general verdict on Twitter was that it is up to the show's other two hosts, S.E. Cupp and Van Jones, to rescue this endeavor from suckdom. They might be up to the task. Cupp's gotten a lot of cable teevee panel show seasoning as a host of MSNBC's "The Cycle," and could be hungering for an opportunity to free herself from the confines of the show's strictly-enforced collegiality. And it's a genuine surprise that Jones was included in this project, because he is a rarity on cable news panel shows -- a bona fide liberal. By which I mean he is genuinely to the left of most "liberals approved by the Democratic donor class" who are the more traditional features of these kinds of shows.
What Cupp and Jones should do, in fact, is shrug off the "left versus right" paradigm of the show and see themselves as partners in the battle against the weaksauce hackery and flackery to which Cutter and Gingrich are limited. They have the opportunity to be really interesting, argue their points of view with electricity, and even challenge the show's set dynamic. If they do so, they will probably be quickly fired! But maybe they can do one or two "Crossfire" shows in which the scrolling news ticker in the lower third doesn't end up being the star of the show.
But in this, I am probably being way more optimistic than is warranted by the threadbare junk that was allowed to air Monday night. In fact, the best thing I can say about the debut of "Crossfire" is that it may find the same success that Liz Lemon's "Dealbreakers" show found in the universe of "30 Rock" -- as something that can be played on the teevees in the background of other teevee shows.
So, if in two years time, you see the new "Crossfire" playing on the monitors of HBO's "The Newsroom," this will be an extraordinary achievement because it means that there will still be enough people watching "The Newsroom" to keep it on the air in 2015.
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This story appears in Issue 66 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Sept. 13.