Go along for the ride on NBC's new sitcom Preview: In a refreshing turn of political satire, 'Lateline' lobs spitballs inside the beltway.

March 17, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Al Franken is a big, fat genius.

OK, he's not fat, but he sure helped create a smart sitcom in "Lateline," which premieres tonight on NBC.

Franken, a five-time Emmy award winner for his work on "Saturday Night Live" and author of the best-selling "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot and Other Observations," is one of our best political satirists. And, boy, do we need political satire in prime time today.

Outside of "Murphy Brown" (which is about to end) and "Spin City" (which is about local politics in New York City), we don't see much political satire in prime time. There are reasons for that -- first and foremost, the fact that the networks profit enormously from the mainly laissez-faire way Washington lets them run the airwaves, which are supposed to belong to we, the people.

"Lateline" is in no way a full-blown political satire. But, like "Murphy Brown" in its early days, it has enough of a Washington bite to make you feel it's on our side instead of inside the beltway. Also, like "Murphy," it takes some of the biggest bites out of the hide of the media.

The sitcom is set in the offices of a late-night network news program. Yes, it's ABC's "Nightline." If you didn't get it from the Capital Dome logo and a thousand other points of reference, you probably read the NBC-generated publicity stories about how Franken and co-creator John Markus ("The Cosby Show," "The Larry Sanders Show" and "A Different World") hung out at "Nightline" to get the feel of it.

Why do I think ABC's pompous, puffed-up peacock Ted Koppel is not going to like the pompous, puffed-up peacock anchorman, Pearce McKenzie (Robert Foxworth), of "Lateline"? If McKenzie isn't spending $60,000 on an antique chair, he's having affairs with a succession of young women and giving new meaning to the word "phony" with his on-air platitudes -- especially those about how devoted he is to his wife, who, he tells us, is also his "very best friend."

In tonight's pilot, McKenzie hears that anchorwoman Diane Saunders signed a new contract for more money than him and uses the show to announce his resignation as part of negotiating ploy. (One can only hope Franken will turn his pen on Saunders' real-life counterpart in future episodes to explore the depths of phony.)

The only person in the newsroom who doesn't know that McKenzie has no real intention of resigning is Al Freundlich (Franken), who believes he is about to move up from chief correspondent to anchor. Freundlich is the heart and soul of this series, and how you feel about him will determine whether or not you become a fan of "Lateline."

Franken says of Freundlich: "A lot of sitcoms have a show schlemiel, and Freundlich fulfills that role. But he's a different schlemiel -- passionate about his work, with a patina of intellectualism, and fully unaware of himself."

Freundlich fits most of the seven definitions of schlemiel in Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish," from being clumsy to naive to unlucky. One of the funnier moments in tonight's pilot comes when he is addressing the newsroom about how everyone is going to have to "raise the bar" on performance after he takes over as anchor. As Freundlich says this, he leans against the Xerox machine and inadvertently hits the copy button, sending it into a whirring, flashing frenzy. By the time it's done, Freundlich has been temporarily blinded by looking straight into the flash.

But Freundlich is more than just a fool. He also embodies the right journalistic values -- hard work, concern for the people about whom he reports, honesty, thoughtfulness, integrity. In other words, he is the one with the social conscience. But like the Albert Brooks character in "Broadcast News," he's mocked for all those things, thought of as boring and considered guilty of the worst sin of all: being death in the Nielsen ratings.

In this sense, Freundlich is the wise fool, and the ultimate joke is on the society that values McKenzie so much more than him.

I don't know if this midseason series will make it beyond the six NBC has ordered. It is clearly the smartest new sitcom from NBC in years, but that is certainly no guarantee of success.

NBC and Franken are wisely promoting it as a roman a clef with lots of cameos by such Children of the Beltway as Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and members of the TV talk show "The McLaughlin Group." It's an approach that should lead to a nice-size audience.

But, in the end, watch it not for what political or media types it is skewering, but rather as a parable about us and our values -- about the empty glitter of public affairs in American life.

'Lateline'

When: 9: 30-10 tonight

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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