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TELEVISION REVIEW

Morgan displays a surprising soft side in CNN debut

Piers Morgan is Larry King’s replacement on CNN. Piers Morgan is Larry King’s replacement on CNN. (Mario Anzuoni/ Reuters)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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Piers Morgan took over Larry King’s CNN slot last night and was by turns charming, vain, well informed, and fawning — but mostly just fawning. During the hour with his first guest, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan heaped endless praise on her, telling “the American queen’’ that she would’ve been a “fantastic mother’’ and a great therapist, all while laughing a little too eagerly at her jokes.

And Oprah met his praise with her own, repeating “You’re good’’ whenever he asked her non-fluffy questions that weren’t designed to let her promote her new OWN network. At the end of the premiere of CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight,’’ which airs nightly from 9-10, the famously self-promotional host asked Oprah how he had done. “You have been surprising,’’ Oprah said, “and that’s a good thing.’’

Known for asking tough questions and being the cranky “America’s Got Talent’’ judge, Morgan was indeed surprising — surprisingly soft. He failed to press Oprah hard on any of her more touchy-feely answers. And yet his Barbara Walters-esque method worked, to some extent, since Oprah is not one to bend to pressure. He inspired her to talk with relative candor about her life’s mission of self-realization, her suicidal thoughts when she was pregnant at 14, her unconventional relationship with Stedman Graham, her romantic heartbreaks, and her commitment to “be here, be now.’’

Rather than introducing himself to his CNN audience with fists clenched, Morgan chose to prove he could be a gentleman and a little vulnerable and playful, too. Realizing that he and Oprah were competing to have Michael Vick as a guest, he bet her 100 British pounds on who would get Vick first — which she upped to 200.

Tonight, Morgan will probably reveal a different side as he spends the hour with Howard Stern and the show moves from last night’s living room to Morgan’s regular stage set. Then he will have a better chance to show us whether “Piers Morgan Tonight’’ will be more than just another one of TV’s blah-blah-blah talk shows.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

“PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT’’
On: CNN
Last night, 9-10; airs week nights