So far, while reading a newspaper, I have never been kicked offline because of a systems error or a power failure or the low-intensity guerrilla warfare between Microsoft and Netscape. So don’t tell me the future of journalism is written in pixels and code. I will continue to cherish the messy mosaic of the morning broadsheet and the surreal smear of the tabloid long after the last dot-commie has posted his last stock option in the ghostly cybervoid. Ink is my kind of incense. And so, naturally, I am rooting for Deadline (Mondays, starting October 2; 9 to 10 p.m.; NBC), the new Dick Wolf newspaper show that’s almost as nostalgic and crabby on the subject as I am.
A terrific cast seems to have been ulcerating together in their cubbyholes, at their VDTs, for years before we meet them in the pilot. Oliver Platt is our flawed hero, a hard-drinking, baby-faced, overwrought, and overweight Pulitzer-winning columnist for the New York Ledger, which looks exactly like the New York Post. On the office food chain, he ostensibly reports to tough-glam Bebe Neuwirth, who in her turn answers to right-wing expat Tom Conti, a one-man bonfire of Tom Wolfe’s vanities. I’m not quite sure yet what it is that Lili Taylor does at the Ledger, but she does it with the same mad gleam of eye, the same shortwave radio signals in her busy head, that she has brought to so many indie films. Also unclear is just which rung on the totem pole Hope Davis occupies, although she’s the estranged wife of columnist Platt, and she is, as usual, the designated neurasthenic thoroughbred, the blonde-maned coltish Wasp. (Or, as she will wonderfully describe herself, “a former Foxcroft slut.”) To this mix, for the desirable youth demographic, add half a dozen hard-bodied journalism students, whom adjunct professor Platt bullies into doing his legwork, and whom I’ll sort out some other time.
We are in no danger of confusing the Ledger with Lou Grant’s Los Angeles Tribune. At the Tribune, which bit the dust in 1982, Ed Asner, Nancy Marchand, Mason Adams, Robert Walden, Linda Kelsey, and Jack Bannon spent more time worrying about the ethics of their job than do most journalism schools. At the Ledger, everything’s personal: self-regard, blood feud, tribal grudge, guts and glory. In Deadline’s first hour, Platt insists on reinvestigating one of his old stories – the brutal killing of the employees at a fast-food franchise (“The Cheeseburger Murders”), for which two young black men are about to be executed – not because he has anything against capital punishment but because this “drama queen” hates to be wrong. In the second hour, Conti will unleash his mad dogs to harass a well-connected businessman, not out of any populist fervor to afflict the comfortable but because this businessman once blackballed him from a private club; and Neuwirth falls into bed with someone she’s planning a story on.
The second hour, on October 9, is better than the first – always a good sign. The problem with the first, despite lots of snappy dialogue and ACLU jokes, is that we already know from the opening credits that these young men on death row are innocent of this particular crime, and the story moves, too much by the numbers, to a last-minute confession as convenient as the hoariest courtroom outburst in Perry Mason. Whereas the second hour, involving everything from a dead city councilman, a union activist, and a fugitive warrant that goes all the way back to the good old days of antiwar protests and a Police Department “Red Squad,” to Pete Seeger, Mark Rudd, exotic dancers, and Cuban cigars, is full of surprises, equally unpredictable in narrative and character – although executive producer Wolf obviously has a thing about undercover spooks and provocateurs in the sixties peace movement, to which he also devoted an episode of Law & Order.
But it’s Law & Order and its Special Victims Unit epigone that Deadline most resembles, more than Lou Grant. If you’re going to make dramatic network television out of stories ripped from yesterday’s headlines, why not have a daily paper of your very own? It certainly speeds things up. Whether it will float, Nielsen knows. Newspaper shows shut down almost as often as newspapers. Whatever happened to Hard Copy, with Michael Murphy and Wendy Crewson? Or Capital News, with Helen Slater and William Russ? Or New York News, with Mary Tyler Moore? Even, for that matter, to Slap Maxwell, with Dabney Coleman? Excepting Lou Grant, which was probably canceled on account of politics, there hasn’t been a successful journalism series since The Name of the Game, after which Susan Saint James actually married a TV producer.
Here’s hoping. The fact that WoIf’s Ledger is a tabloid – so lowlife-feisty, suspecting the worst and publishing first, like the old-school private eye who got up from his bottle to do battle against the big guys on behalf of the losers – may ingratiate its reporters and editors to a sullen audience that, if public-opinion polls are to be trusted, doesn’t believe a word it reads, anyway. At least they aren’t sitting around in their social pretensions, imagining themselves to be a fourth branch of the government, or even a separate country, with their own pomp, protocols, dress codes, foreign policy, and official secrets, lacking only an anthem and a beanie.
There is also a healthy dose of class animus in That’s Life (previewing Sunday, October 1, 8 to 9 p.m.; Saturdays thereafter, 8 to 9 p.m.; CBS). The exceedingly appealing Heather Paige Kent – think Sandra Bullock – stars as Lydia DeLucca, a 32-year-old New Jersey bartender who decides to upwardly mobilize herself by ditching her blue-collar dead-end boyfriend to go back to college at Montclair State, where she ends up in a course on human behavior having to listen to a dyspeptic professor grumble on about postmodernism and the “de-centered self.” Waiting at home for smart-mouth Lydia are her loving but mystified working-class parents, Ellen Burstyn as the homemaker mom and Paul Sorvino as the turnpike-toll-collector dad: “You want to find yourself? Go to Mass.” Waiting at the hair salon are best friends Debi Mazar, the best gum-chewer in the styling business, and Kristin Bauer, a former Miss Jersey who seems to be looking for Philip Roth to find her for American Pastoral. And waiting at the bar is the professor himself (Peter Firth), who turns out to be an alcoholic. Lydia talks to us in voice-over – not a good sign. And has black-and-white Ally McBeal-like fantasies, also nervous-making. But how she thinks her way through and then goes about writing her first college paper, while everybody else in the family is watching the Giants play football on television under the twin Jersey icons of the pope and Frank Sinatra, is ennobling and enthralling. And should be. The paper is about free will and determinism, and so is she.