February 19, 2012

TV: Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC, Sat/Sun 10 am Eastern)

Melissa Harris-Perry has been a regular contributor and occasional guest host on MSNBC, particularly on Rachel Maddow's show, for a few years now. Now MSNBC has given her a show of her own, which airs for 2 hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It's something of a cross between Maddow's show (though MHP's style is quite different from Maddow's) and Meet the Press, in which Harris-Perry introduces segments on various news stories in the MSNBC style that is equal parts straight reporting and commentary (the dividing line between the two is always clear), then brings out guests for a panel discussion of those issues.

Harris-Perry is an academic, a professor at Tulane, and that shows in her style; the tone of her introductory segments is occasionally a bit lecturing, and I wish she were bolder in challenging her more conservative guests. But she's got a delightful dry sense of humor, and her background and professional experience leads her to book guests who we don't often see on the Sunday talk shows. They are both more likely to be academics and less likely to be white men.

Harris-Perry covers politics, but she often views events of the moment from a historical perspective, where "historical" is not limited to the last five years; she's very interested in the question of "how did we get here," and exploring how a given event resonates with our history, or what turning points led us to this moment.

She also seems to have a strong interest in the places where politics intersects with broader pop culture; the panel discussion on Saturday's show of the cultural significance of Whitney Houston, and her sometimes controversial place in the African-American musical world, was the best thing I saw in the long week of Celebrity Funeral Porn. 

She also shows a willingness to discuss religion in a more serious way than cable news usually does. (It's possible that was simply driven by the news events of the week, but I don't think so.) Today's panel, for instance, included the first female president of Union Theological Seminary, an African-American female professor of religious studies, and a male Asian-American constitutional law professor for a wide-ranging discussion of the contraception controversy, the week's developments in marriage equality, and the elevation of several new Catholic cardinals.

I make note of the gender and ethnicity of those panelists because Harris-Perry herself makes note of it. She is fonder of identity politics than I am; to the extent that this leads her to bring us a wider mix of voices, that's a good thing. But she seems to believe that men and women will, solely by nature of their gender, see certain issues differently (or similarly for race); she takes the Mars/Venus thing far too seriously for my liking. She made a point, for instance, of noting with pride that there were no white men in that panel discussion of religion; I certainly don't have any objection to the absence of white men (and lord knows that the exclusion of other voices has often led to absurd moments like this week's Congressional hearing on contraception at which no women testified), but neither do I think that their absence is anything to take particular pride in.

At two hours, the show feels long, and I wouldn't mind seeing it trimmed to a tight 60 or 90 minutes. It's also on quite early on the west coast, so it's something that I'll record and skim through later in the day to catch the most interesting bits. But I have long been a fan of Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm delighted to see her distinctive voice given a regular outlet.

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