Tavis Smiley: Week in Review, Part III

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AKIE BERMISS: And so it was with great trepidation that I began to watch Wednesday night’s episode of the Tavis Smiley show.  With a harlequin performance on Monday, and a mediocrity all around Tuesday — I had a feeling Wednesday would have be judged on a Pass/Fail basis.

Perfect because, of course, it was this night that Tavis did his best interview yet, but with probably the least important of his guests.  I have nothing against music (I love music), but if you put Tim McGraw and Madeleine Albright on the same show you’re asking for comparisons to be drawn.  And I know McGraw basically IS country music right now.  But its not like he’s Hank Williams.  He’s not innovating a new kind of southern sound.  His voice is not particularly impressive.  And he’s been around less than 20 years so… a body of work, sure.  But still nothing for which we need to break out Hephaestus’ great hammer and chisel into the heavens just yet.

And yet it was arguably the best interview of the week.  Questions ranged from southern ethos (though it was a cosmetic venture at best) to his relationship with Faith Hill to his work in movies to his relationship with his estranged father and his mother and his alcoholic abusive stepfather.  It was, quite literally, an exhaustive interview.  All in a perfectly packaged 12 minute morsel.  Tavis asked his leading questions and follow-ups with well-timed class and bravado.  McGraw turned out to be an excellent subject and much more complex than I’d thought (I hadn’t known anything about him before he was Tim McGraw — country star).

But when you really sit back and think about it — doesn’t it just amplify the shame of it all?!  This week they’ve had five fascinating people on with books and personal stories and expertise and eloquence.  And each time Tavis has bascially made them dance in chains of non-sequitors and cover-photo musings.  He’s made them repeat themselves and/or state things that are already so widely known its pointless to hear anyone say them anymore.

[aside... a vignette: ACEG

Tavis: With me today, John Doe award-winning enthnomusicoligist and author of the new book, "All Cows Eat Grass."  Interesting title?  Do all cows eat grass?

JD: Well, uh... I suppose they would.

Tavis: Because cows sometimes eat hay, don't they?  Or grain?  Why'd you pick this title?

JD: Haha -- Well, Tavis, I guess its a mnemonic device that music students use to learn how to read music.

Tavis: Yes indeed it is.  And its remarkable what you can do once you can read music.  Once you can eat the grass, right?

JD: I... guess so...

Tavis: And I noticed you have a brown cow on the cover...]

Alas, for all the humor one may derive from making fun of the show, this is the same man who, minutes before, was talking uninterrupted with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.  Who, in what might’ve been a good move, decided since she was the former Secretary of State to ask her opinion on some of the things the US is facing internationally right now.  But each question is basically just an brief overview question.  Nothing is really getting dealt with in them.  Albright is saying, “yes, all cows do eat grass.  Unless they are locked in a pen their whole lives and the farmer only feed them grain cause its cheaper and easier to deal with.” In short, yes — if you watch CNN for an hour or so you too would know this — but you can hear me say it on PBS with Tavis Smiley, tonight.

I will admit: its nice, as an Albright fan, to see that she is still sharp as a tack and clearly has a handle on all the elements on the field right now even though she’s no longer serving an official role.

The point of her coming on was to promote her new book, and they did eventually get to it.  But here again Tavis shows his lack of vigor when he brings up the origin of the book (which is about Albright’s fantastic signature broaches and also, I suspect, her time as Secretary of State) and how it came to be — but they never really discuss anything of what’s in the book.  I sat there wondering: is this a book purely about Madeleine Albright’s jewelry?  Her jewelry in the context of her struggles at diplomacy?  A snarky, sardonic look at how diplomacy has fall sharply in the last 8 years and might be resurgent under the Obama administration?  Is this a book where they talk about her childhood a bit?  Or just her professional career? Or is it just picture of broaches and brief, italicized anecdotes?


Well — I guess we’ll never know.  Ain’t life grand?  Its certainly perplexing, anyway.

HOWARD MEGDAL: No digression at all from what Akie said about this. In essence, we know this: give Tavis some liner notes and a CD, and he will prepare. Give him a book, and he’ll look at the cover.

It was the right choice to begin with news of the day, I think- again, the book itself may have had more interesting substance. But one will never know from seeing this interview. And it isn’t the format itself- watch any Charlie Rose interview on the subject of foreign policy, and the level of detail is far greater than a typical news show. How can Tavis come on right after Charlie Rose and never learn anything from him?!?

In short: I have no idea what the book is about, and I continue to enjoy Madeline Albright.

As for McGraw, I learned a ton. He’s a thoughtful guy, and shared well. Tavis even had his very first question that followed up on what the guest had just said (in reference to McGraw’s described self-discovery)- how useful that could have been with Albright, or Kristof, or anyone else!

Too bad the book about Thelonious Monk wasn’t a country song, for Tavis Smiley’s sake.

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