'Breaking' more like a follow-up news story

Bravo series solid, but worn concept is hard to buy into

July 17, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I feel like I should be more excited about Breaking News, Bravo's new prime-time drama about life backstage at an all-news cable channel. It has a hard-charging, fast-paced and intelligent pilot, as well as impressive talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Yet, whereas watching the first five hours of HBO's The Wire or the first four of Showtime's Street Time back to back on preview cassettes seemed like a critic's holiday, screening the first six hours of Breaking News was mostly work by Episode Two. Maybe it's just that I know too much about television news after covering it for 25 years - like the fact that all the talk about the public's right to know by these characters is a load of bull - to suspend disbelief enough to buy into the drama even a little bit.

I truly think, though, that it's not just me. I suspect one of the reasons that so many newsroom dramas (such as ABC's The Beast) have crashed and burned in recent years is that most of the audience knows that TV news long ago abandoned its better angels, and that the all-news cable channels of today would give Charles Manson a live call-in show if they thought he could draw more viewers than Larry King. It's not just a matter of suspending disbelief; it's a matter of not wanting to feel like your intelligence is being insulted when you're asked to care about this world.

But there are reasons to at least check out tonight's pilot - the chief one being the presence of Ken Olin (thirtysomething) playing executive producer Richard Sloan at the fictional I-24 news network. Olin also happens to be one of the executive producers of Breaking News, as well as the director of the pilot.

The action starts with Sloan getting a tip via phone that there was an avalanche in Colorado and one of its victims might be the vice president of the United States. A chain of phone calls as I-24 gears up to cover the story introduces us to the major players.

Sloan's first call is to Peter Kozyck (Clancy Brown), president of the news division, who sees the story as a way to put I-24 on the map, as well as getting his own news juices flowing again. Both he and the channel need a hit of headline adrenaline. Viewership has fallen short of corporate projections, and it has been two years since Kozyck left ABC News and oversaw coverage of a big story.

Bill Dunne (Tim Matheson), an anchorman full of quotes from Edward R. Murrow, has his own issues, including the sense that he is working at a second-rate operation that misses more news than it covers. Jamie Templeton (Rowena King), star correspondent, just wants to be the one standing live at the scene of any story it does cover.

Julian Kerbis (Paul Adelstein), her producer, meanwhile, wants to be the one not just putting Templeton on the air, but sharing her life. Kerbis and Templeton are in bed in a motel in Arizona when they get the phone call from Kozyck about the avalanche. It interrupts not just their love-making, but Kerbis' plans to give Templeton an engagement ring at dinner that night.

Other key players are Lisa Ann Walter (Emeril) as I-24's tough-talking news director Rachel Glass, and Jeffrey D. Sams as Mel Thomas, a Washington correspondent who is having a hard time balancing the demands of his career with family life. John Ritter (Three's Company) provides comic relief as an over-the-top consumer reporter.

The always-terrific Patricia Wettig (thirtysomething), Olin's real-life wife, plays Alison Dunne, the anchorman's wife, but don't look for her in the pilot. And don't look for Olin on-screen beyond tonight's pilot. I don't want to give away any details, but I do have to tell you that he is gone for good by the end of the episode. I also have to admit that I might be raving about this show instead of poor mouthing it if his character was a continuing one - I like his work that much.

But he is gone, and instead we are left with too many cliched characters like Templeton. I suspect I will surprise almost no one by revealing that she doesn't really want the engagement ring from her producer; what she really wants is for him to keep pointing the camera at her - and only at her.

Maybe I am being too hard in calling her a cliche. There's nothing terribly wrong with her performance or the writing of her character. It's just that there is nothing new or terrific about them, either.

Perhaps, the problem is not so much with Breaking News itself as it is the shadow in which it exists - the shadow of such landmark films as Paddy Chayefsky's Network (1976) and James L. Brooks' Broadcast News (1987). The famous scene in Broadcast News with a young producer racing through the newsroom to get a cassette to the control room before the start of the newscast was so dramatic because we in the audience believed it was important that the tape made it on air before the clock said it was too late.

Today, we understand so much better that whether or not the tape makes it to the control room in time is not really that important. It's not nearly as important, for example, as who owns the machine in which the tape will or will not be allowed to play - a decision that often has more to do with money than timeliness or news.

Breaking News

When: Tonight at 8

Where: Bravo

Rated: R (violence, language and sexuality)

In brief: A solid but uninspired drama about life at an all-news cable channel

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