“Sundays With Alec Baldwin” is, on every conceivable level, meant to be simple, inoffensive television. From the ’60s multi-color ABC logo that kicks off the episode to the colorful set complete with blue chairs (that make Baldwin’s eyes pop like crazy), the hourlong talk show is meant to be a throwback to “Dick Cavett and Tom Snyder,” as Baldwin notes in his introduction — a return to TV’s roots. Maybe some insights pop up here and there while the host chats with his famous “friends,” but the superficially personal conversations and big-name sheen are more important than honest-to-goodness candor.
This is all well and good in theory, save two points: First, talk shows like “Sundays With Alec Baldwin” never went away. Or, at the very least, they’ve been back for a while, in a new form: They’re called podcasts, and Baldwin already has one. Nothing makes his new televised edition stand out visually, nor does the content stand out on its own. In the first episode, aired as an early “preview” of ABC’s series coming soon to Sunday nights, Baldwin speaks to Jerry Seinfeld and Kate McKinnon, two guests leading compelling lives, but who don’t have much to say on the topics introduced.
If that was the worst of it, “Sundays With Alec Baldwin” could get a pass. It’s not vital by any means, but the concept is a harmless, inexpensive means to cater to an audience who may rather watch people have a discussion than listen to them. Yet the host himself, as well as at least one topic he brings up, points to an impending disaster not only for the show, but for Baldwin himself. He’s not an inoffensive person, and his opinions about the #MeToo movement — as directed at another wealthy middle-aged man — are far from simple.
Alec Baldwin is a complicated figure. Much like the title of his last big screen hit (no, not this year’s Oscar-nominated “The Boss Baby”), the former Jack Ryan and current Donald Trump is a man of many faces. To many, he’s still the sleek movie star who worked his baby blues to the max in “The Hunt for Red October” and “The Departed,” before earning back-to-back Emmy wins for “30 Rock” and another one last year for “SNL.” He plays characters, like Jack Donaghy, that people love and that make people love him; Donaghy and Baldwin are interconnected, not only because the actor is always associated with his iconic characters but because of the many meta jokes made to emphasize the tether between the two.
The same could be said for his well-liked take on Trump: not that they’re the same person, but that Baldwin’s mockery of ol’ Donny makes the actor even more endearing to his audience. Between the squinting, curled lips, and inexplicable facial ticks, it’s clear Baldwin’s performance is meant to humiliate Trump, which is exactly what “SNL” viewers want and exactly the reaction Trump has displayed. Trump hates Baldwin’s turn, and that only makes the actor all the more necessary as time goes on.
If this all there was to Baldwin’s image, he’d be the ideal host for a show like “Sundays With [Famous Celebrity Name Here].” But talk show hosts invite more than that. They bridge the gap between persona and person. So even if you buy into the “separating art from the actor” argument, it doesn’t apply in the same way when the actor is no longer acting; he’s just asking questions.
So seeing Alec Baldwin question the #MeToo movement doesn’t sit well. This isn’t just an actor playing a part. It’s a man who has attacked a female writer on Twitter, admits he’s been “sexist” toward women and “bullied women” in the past, once called his daughter a “rude, thoughtless little pig,” and still defends Woody Allen from sexual assault charges. Why do we need to hear his thoughts on Me Too? And why does he need to ask Jerry Seinfeld about it?
To be fair, asking Seinfeld his thoughts on Louis C.K. is fair game. After all, Seinfeld and C.K. were closely associated, if not outright friends. C.K. appeared on Seinfeld’s Emmy-winning series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and the two performed at the same New York comedy clubs regularly. But Baldwin framed the discussion strangely, calling it a “stressful” time for their “colleagues in media” and taking Seinfeld at his word that he and C.K. never discussed the long-gestating rumors about his inappropriate behavior. (“How is that coming up? While we’re waiting to do a set?” Seinfeld said, before noting that “I’ve still never seen cocaine to this day,” as a way to imply things that seem unavoidable for certain people are, in fact, not.)
These are his friends, after all. It seems unlikely he’ll press his friends into an uncomfortable admission or even an unwanted discussion. But it was Seinfeld who kept saving Baldwin from wading into turbulent waters. Not only did Baldwin say it’s “always so sad to watch people self-destruct,” conveying pity for those accused of sexual misconduct, but he went on to throw out the Scared Man idea that women will end up getting less work because men will be afraid to hire them.
Seinfeld walked him back from the former point — explaining that because Baldwin can only survive if he’s constantly working, he thus feels added sympathy for anyone who can no longer do the work — but he couldn’t save him from the latter. “I wonder if people are going to hire less women,” Baldwin said. “I wonder if guys are going to get nervous.” Seinfeld could only muster, “My wife has made this point: that there’s a part of this that’s not gonna be good for women.”
Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica Seinfeld, may have been the right voice for this particular conversation, but listening to two famous, well-off, powerful male actors talk about being scared by the movement is all wrong in this era — especially airing right after an Oscars ceremony where Frances McDormand made an actionable call for equality in Hollywood.
Rather than focus on how Baldwin almost went off the rails in his first hour, which, again, was put together quickly in order to capitalize off the Oscars telecast, it’s important to understand the fundamental problem facing his new show. “Sundays With Alec Baldwin” brings the titular host’s public image and personal realities into conflict. With its many references to Baldwin’s beloved roles (from Trump to an outro discussion on his iconic speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross”), the show relies on viewers to remember how much they love his characters… while he’s out-of-character. “Sundays With Alec Baldwin” invites off-screen issues while wanting you to only think of him as the guy on your screen. The argument that “you love Alec Baldwin when he’s acting, even if you don’t love Alec Baldwin” doesn’t work anymore.
In short, it’s complicated. It’s probably too complicated to ever be the clean, simple show it wants to be: “Sundays With Alec Baldwin” doesn’t work without Alec Baldwin, but it doesn’t work with him, either.
“Sundays with Alec Baldwin” will air eight additional episodes later this year on ABC.