'Ricki Lake' is first entry in 5 o'clock fray

TELEVISION PREVIEW

September 13, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Now that all the talk shows are in place for the late-night war, it's time to start thinking about yet another battlefield and the arrival of a most unusual warrior to Baltimore TV.

Today marks the start of what's going to be one of the most competitive struggles in the history of local TV: the 5 o'clock wars.

The battle won't be in full effect until Dec. 1 when WJZ (Channel 13) launches its new 5 o'clock news with Sally Thorner. That's the marquee event.

But the counterprogramming starts today with the arrival of "Ricki Lake" at 5 on WBFF (Channel 45) -- a new talk show for twentysomethings.

Ricki Lake, as if anyone in Baltimore needs to be told, is the actress who starred in John Waters' "Hairspray." She's also in Waters' "Serial Mom," which has not yet been released. She's the host of "Ricki Lake."

While an actress who works in Waters' films might not seem like the most logical choice for a mainstream TV talk show, the hTC producers are selling "Ricki Lake" as "the first nationally syndicated talk show for young adults."

And, in that context, the choice of the 24-year-old Lake makes perfect sense, according to Executive Producer Gail Steinberg.

"In addition to being young and in tune with the issues facing young adults, she knows how to ask the right questions," Steinberg says.

Based on the first show, it's hard to tell whether or not Lake knows how to ask the right questions.

Overall, today's premiere episode is kind of strange. In fact, at points, it seems like it could have been made by John Waters as a goof on daytime talk shows.

The topic is "women who steal other women's men."

The show starts by featuring two women -- identified as Giovanna and Anna -- who look like they came straight from central casting. Big hair, too much make-up, and lots of attitude.

Giovanna says, "If a man isn't looking at other women, he's in a coma."

Anna says, "If his wife was giving him what he needed, he wouldn't be looking."

Each time the camera focuses on one of the women, a graphic appears underneath.

One graphic that appears under a head shot of Giovanna, for example, says, "She can get her hooks into any man."

They are all of that inflammatory nature.

One of the first audience members called on to ask a question, skips the question altogether and tells Anna she's a "low-paid prostitute." Lots of the questions carry that kind of emotion.

And, in the middle of it all, is Ricki Lake with the microphone in her hand and that sweet smile on her face.

From that description, the show might sound like madness. But there appears to be some method behind it.

Clearly, what the producers are going for is to get viewers to identify with Lake the way they do with Oprah Winfrey.

While Lake is attractive, she's not a beauty-queen, glamour-puss type.

And she does have this "nice girl" air about her, which Steinberg, her producer, describes as "warmth."

All of that almost clicks into place when Lake asks Giovanna if she doesn't feel some guilt about stealing other women's men, and Giovanna says she feels none. It almost becomes Ricki and the audience (as the righteous) vs. Giovanna and Anna (as the wicked).

It almost becomes a kind of theater.

But, ultimately, it misses.

And you're left wondering what's a nice girl like Ricki Lake is doing in a crazy talk show like this.

Still, there's potential here. This is only one of more than 200 "Ricki Lake" shows that will air this year if it finds an audience of young adults.

Channel 45 and 140 other stations around the country are betting that young adults would rather watch "Ricki Lake" than ++ local news.

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