Television

TV Critic’s Corner

Letterman launches Netflix show with a disappointing Obama interview

David Letterman interviews Barack Obama on “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”
Netflix
David Letterman interviews Barack Obama on “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.”

What the first episode of David Letterman’s new Netflix show DOESN’T do is mention Donald Trump.

That’s significant, because the first guest of “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” is Barack Obama. Letterman and Obama make a few glancing allusions to the current administration in a brief conversation about the media, social media, and possible Russian meddling in the last election: “One of the biggest challenges we have to our democracy is the degree to which we don’t share a common baseline of facts,” Obama says. “If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you listen to NPR.”

But both men are committed to the high road, refusing to stoop to the level of insult and break into the news cycle with comments meant to rally Democrats or to incite Trump to yell back on Twitter.

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So nice work on the classiness, guys.

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However, what “My Next Guest” DOES do is nothing especially interesting at all.

The two sit facing each other in chairs on a stage at City University of New York, with no desk between them and no Paul Shaffer band delivering intros and outros, and they essentially discuss historical and biographical material we already know about, and without much depth. Letterman gushes about Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father,” as if he doesn’t realize it came out in 1995, and they revisit Obama’s youth in Hawaii. Obama describes how he became inspired by civil rights, how the absence of his father led to his desire “to be present in my children’s life,” and how he does not miss “the trappings of the office.”

It’s all fairly rote and familiar, and what’s worse is Letterman’s interviewing manner, which is clearly rusty. He fawns over his guest more than he should, he makes awkward jokes about this newfangled thing called Netflix, and he drives the conversation into a mutual children-appreciation session so that he can enthuse about his son and Obama can enthuse about his daughters. Even a video segment built around a chat between Letterman and US Representative John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., doesn’t quite spark.

It’s great to see Obama looking healthy and smiling broadly. “You’re hang gliding, you’re climbing volcanoes, you’re wrestling sharks,” Letterman says to him about their respective retirements. “I’m at Bed Bath & Beyond picking out wire hangers.” And it’s potentially entertaining to see crotchety Dave, with his beard and white sox, remaking himself into a kind of hipster grandpa.

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But the first hour of “My Next Guest” — five more are coming, with actor George Clooney up next — does not inspire faith in Letterman’s ability to conduct serious, substantive interviews.