Coming up tonight on Lateline: Judge Mike Pinsky declares Lateline sucks. Film at 11.
"You guys don't understand what you're dealing with. He's going to keep coming back like those Chevy Chase Vacation movies!"—Vic Karp (Miguel Ferrer)
In Washington, they say that it isn't news if it doesn't appear on Lateline. This Emmy-winning fortress of journalistic excellence is ruled by producer Vic Karp (Miguel Ferrer), whose anchorman Pearce McKenzie (Robert Foxworth) treats each story with the gravity it deserves. Backing Pearce is a team of professionals, led by chief correspondent Al Freundlich (Al Franken). So turn to Lateline, because this is the news. It sure isn't comedy.
Television loves to talk about itself, and in the world of comedy, nothing is apparently funnier than television taking itself seriously. The TV newsroom has proven fertile ground for many situation comedies over the years, from the warmth of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to the topical barbs of Murphy Brown to the whipsmart dialogue of Sports Night. Put a bunch of borderline neurotics in a newsroom and watch them try to get serious work done, and the jokes write themselves. Plus, you get to look edgy by mocking current events. It is a sure-fire premise.
So why does Lateline fail to hit its mark so often?
Again, the premise is sound. And the show certainly has a solid cast, led by Al Franken, whose writing chops are well-established from years on Saturday Night Live and a successful shift in the 1990s toward overt political humor. Veteran performers like Robert Foxworth and Miguel Ferrer anchor the cast. Celebrity cameos of all political stripes, from G. Gordon Liddy in the pilot to John Kerry (then just an ordinary senator) in the final episode, fill the empty spaces. Yet Lateline was shuffled around television for its brief run, moving from NBC after two short seasons of six episodes apiece. After that, a handful of remaining episodes were burned off on Showtime. Then Lateline vanished.
You can see why NBC was disappointed in the show from those painful first six episodes. In the pilot, Pearce McKenzie, Lateline's egotistical anchorman (is there any other sort of anchorman in a sitcom?) pretends to retire so he can extort more money out of the network. Al Freundlich, a nebbish with delusions of grandeur, thinks he is next in line to run the show. But the result is far from funny. The characters are unappealing: Ferrer's Vic Karp comes across as a creepy misogynist, while Freundlich is grating. The chemistry never clicks. The jokes—well, there really are not any jokes. Yet the laugh track is cranked up as if the audience is suffering kuru. Even when there are no jokes at all.
The remaining five episodes of the 1998 freshman season of Lateline, all included on the first disc of Paramount's three-DVD set, do not show much improvement. Even the sets look cut-rate, more like a local news show than a national network program. A plot inspired by Joe Klein's anonymously-ascribed bestseller Primary Colors, in which Freundlich is rumored to be the author behind an anonymous potboiler, falls flat. The real buzz around Klein's book was that its cogent (if thinly fictionalized) look at Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign smacked of an insider. In the Lateline version, there is nothing political at work: Tangled Banners is a sex-filled Payton Place with newsies. Instead of political satire, the entire business becomes just another mediocre sitcom plot. The remaining episodes rely on cameos by Beltway boys (for example, Dick Gephardt and Robert Reich show up in the green room of the show's eponymous news program), but nobody seems to be able to deliver a punch line. Only G. Gordon Liddy, already a human punch line, is up to the task of doing comedy.
Season Two (contained on the second disc) is slightly better, as the pace of the show is tightened up a bit. Conan O'Brien and Andy Richter provide some much-needed levity in one episode (Pearce finds new popularity doing sketches on their show), and Dana Carvey makes a rare appearance, under heavy makeup, as a decrepit Southern politician. The scene reminds the audience that this show would have been better focusing its attention on SNL-style sketch comedy, playing to Al Franken's strengths. Franken works best in small doses, but he has a hard time sustaining our attention as Al Freundlich over the long haul. The show tries to compensate by shifting over to the supporting cast, led by Megyn Price as the spunky blond producer looking to shatter the glass ceiling (Felicity Huffman did it better on Sports Night, folks). The political edge that the show begs for is still sanded down to avoid offending anyone. Plots in the second season include Freundlich going to prison to protect a confidential source (done better on Murphy Brown), intern Ajay Naidu helping the hedonistic son of an African dictator, and Freundlich dressing like a redneck to buy an artillery piece at a gun show. Potentially funny situations, but I found myself only chuckling once per episode. At least this is an improvement over the first season, where I just kept checking the time code on the DVD player to see when it would be over.
Some of the show's remaining seven episodes ran on Showtime after NBC gave up on Lateline. Perhaps aware that they had nothing to lose, the cast and crew finally begin to take some risks, and the show actually starts slipping into a groove. While nothing on Disc Three will make audiences really mourn the lost potential of Lateline, a couple of episodes do spark. Jokes about religion can be risky, but the show does well (and avoids cheap shots) with an episode about a charming Christian fundamentalist leader. Christine Zander guests as a ditzy Eurotrash sexpot who has the men in the newsroom falling all over her. And in the series' finest moment, we get a full-length episode of the Lateline news program devoted to Freundlich's stint as a technical advisor on a Hollywood movie. Now here is real satire, like the rest of the series never quite got right: Freundlich's insistence on realism sinks a big-budget disaster movie (directed by Rob Reiner and starring Martin Sheen as the president). There is no laugh track, and the extended skewering of the movie industry drops the sitcom clichés. But it is only for one episode—then back to business as usual.
One genuinely good episode—and absolutely no extras—does not make Lateline a good buy, even for fans of Al Franken's work. The show's overall insistence on playing to its sitcom format and not taking enough risks with real satire ultimately dooms it to the bottom of the ratings in the competitive world of the newsroom situation comedy. If you like Franken, stick with his books (assuming you do not live in a market that gets his Air America radio show).
This court orders the Lateline staff to make an on-air apology for their casual disregard for the great traditions of television journalism—and television comedy. Paramount is found guilty of all charges.
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