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TELEVISION REVIEW

Strange brew served up at CNBC: It's Miller light

CNBC's "Dennis Miller" could have been a pro-Bush counterpart to Jon Stewart's sharp and playful "Daily Show." With a resume that includes anchoring "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live," Miller could have offered viewers an oddball, absurdist alternative to the dull drone of cable commentary.

But after only a week on the air, "Dennis Miller" has already put down firm roots in cable-news dullsville. The show, which airs each weeknight at 9, has been quickly sucked into the cable vacuum where talking hotheads interrupt one another endlessly and where political figures such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani get soft interviews. Miller winds up being even less captivating than Bill Maher, whose HBO show has some semblance of a spark.

Part of the problem this week was the poorly paced format of the hour. It quickly dispensed with Miller's ironic news bits to spend excessive amounts of time on satellite spots with political figures and tedious panel discussions. The show doesn't know what it wants to be, except a vehicle for Miller, and perhaps an attraction for Fox News viewers. One minute you think it's leaning toward Letterman-esque loopiness, particularly when Miller's "cohost," a chimp named Ellie, appears. Perched on Miller's desk a few times this week in an homage to Dave Garroway, Ellie kept pressing the button on a box that triggers Howard Dean's fatal whoop. She provided a perfect goof on the monkey business of cable hosting.

But the next minute, it falls deep into circular, serious debates between the panelists, which Miller is not equipped to moderate. As lefty Naomi Wolf and righty David Horowitz talked over one another this week, Miller sat back as if he were only another panelist and not the host. And then there were the long, generic, and humorless interviews, like Miller's chat with John McCain, which culminated in a peculiar attempt to rebuild the image of Admiral James Stockdale. Clearly, Miller wants his show to appeal to adults, but adult attention spans have their limits, too.

Another problem is Miller himself, who doesn't appear to understand that he'd be more effective if he took his arrogance down a notch or two or three. His smugness didn't fly during his work as a commentator on "Monday Night Football," and it often lands here with a thud. Miller likes to chuckle at his own jokes, but he generally isn't as clever as he thinks he is. When John Kerry goes to South Carolina, Miller said on Tuesday night, "People are going to think it's Lurch from `The Addams Family' bringing Gomez an aperitif." It wasn't much, nor was this line: "If Dean loses he will sing out the names of all 50 states in pig latin using a soft, haunting falsetto." Add to them the predictable Martha Stewart jokes about lifestyles and jail, and you don't exactly have a laugh riot.

Also, Miller is too eager to show us how very much he knows about pop culture, as he continually forces far-flung references to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "White Christmas" into political contexts. The studio crew is sometimes heard laughing out loud at Miller, but I don't think the home audience is snorting. Snoring, more likely.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com

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