Nothing But The Truth
When a celluloid journalist, all throbbing outrage and pouting lips, takes uncovering the truth as his raison d’etre, romanticism sharply smacks reality in the face. For most working hacks, from prize-winning columnists to local rag neophytes, only three things matter: the last story (source of pride to be paraded or humiliation to be expiated), the current story (source of unmitigated angst and ecstasy), and the next story (sure source of glory, Pulitzer not excepted). In Deadline, Dick Wolf’s new show for NBC, no one, least of all the self-satisfied Wallace Benton (played with plumy waspishness by Oliver Platt), seems to care a fig for the story. Stripped of that basic animating passion, half-hearted characters struggle with plots so limp not even the dazzling cast (a source of much anticipation during the endless nights of packaged Olympics and baseball play-offs) can quicken Deadline to life.
Indeed, Wolf’s cast has probably garnered more good reviews than any other on television just now. Si Beekman (Tom Conti, mixing his standby shaggy charm with an irascible frown) publishes the tabloid The New York Ledger under the editorship of Nikki Masucci (Bebe Neuwirth). Platt plays Beekman’s highly paid, prize-winning columnist (fortunately, the audience is told this or it never would have guessed), while the subtle Hope Davis snipes as Benton’s ex-wife and fellow hack, Brooke Benton. Lili Taylor appears (but does not yet contribute to the drama) as gossip columnist Hildy Baker. And this cast can occasionally make the drama crackle. When Benton finds his ex-wife swiping objects from their one-time marital home, the audience catches the half-hate, half-passion that still binds them. While Benton reclines imperially on the sofa, Brooke tries to simultaneously to put down his graduate student assistant (and probable girlfriend) and his self-satisfaction. She is routed, but only just, and as she drops a kiss and a couple of slaps to Benton’s cheek, his face sags ruefully for a moment and he watches, expressionless, as she leaves. Subtle acting and fine writing, but unfortunately, not allied to the driving plot of the show. Not one of these anemic, if well-played, characters could possibly moan of their newsroom, as Marisa Tomei did in Ron Howard’s The Paper, “I love this place” and have even the most idealistic Woodstein wannabe take it seriously.
Why? Well, if the cast is a dream, the show itself is something of a Frankenstein’s monster. Is it a show about journalism, “a look at the inner workings of The New York Ledger,” as the press pack claims? Well, Benton is a columnist, and home base is the newsroom of a tabloid rag. Is it a crime show? Well, lest journalism prove a little too dull, Benton’s expertise lies loosely in “crime” stories, allowing the audience to follow him “through his crusades to find ‘Nothing But The Truth’,” and letting Wolf stick to the territory he has mined so well. Is it a show about teaching, the passing of wisdom from an older generation to a younger? In a further plot complication, Benton teaches investigative journalism part-time at an unnamed NY graduate school.
This clutter of narrative trajectories means that no aspect of Benton’s life glistens with more than superficial attention. Yet no other character challenges Benton as the key protagonist. Neither the ensemble piece the stellar casting promises, nor the “flawed hero” odyssey the spotlight on Benton suggests, Deadline wavers fatally between genres. And, in making Benton a columnist, not a filing journalist, the show robs itself of the one sure moment of drama in every working writer’s life: the inexorable deadline itself. The writers have to impose artificial, and somewhat tacky, “deadlines” to create dramatic denouements. Will the wrong man die for a crime he did not commit? Will Benton save Brooke from ill-advised romance? Will this show really return next Monday with another lazy story?
It’s as if Wolf is stuck in the paradigm of Law and Order, but has recognized that two clones on the same station might be one too many, even for dedicated fans (like myself). To address this dilemma, he has shifted his investigative premise to another profession, but kept as close as possible to his successful model. Benton, for example, is really Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy, right down to the moralistic histrionics about abstract principles and the exploitative indifference to individuals. Benton has his courtroom in the classroom and his errand-running acolytes, superficially restive but indubitably subordinate, in his students. And, just as in the last ten years of Law and Order, only in these lesser roles is the white, middle class hierarchy breached with the addition of minority characters, such as graduate student assistant Beth Khambu (Christina Chang).
Unlike the subordinates in Law and Order, this group contributes nothing to the investigating of the stories. Individually, and collectively, they act only as a ready-made uninformed audience to whom Benton can display his cleverness, just in case the audience misses it. Of course, the logical audience for Benton’s cleverness and skill would the journalist’s first and nastiest audience, his or her editor and publisher. But that would require the show’s writers to construct storylines and dialogue that conveyed the pace, passion, and creative mayhem of a daily tabloid. Instead, Deadline offers Journalism 101 and sub-Dorothy Parker aphorisms (oh, so well executed). Beekman defines the brutal fast-food joint murder that precipitates the story as, “the American nightmare death in a clean, well-lit place,” while Brooke reverses Wallace’s description of tabloid newsroom life into “kinky ferment and intellectual sex.” The hoary charade of revealing the fragility of eyewitness evidence by exposing perception’s flaws, in this case compounded by a giveaway yellow slicker worn ostentatiously by Beth throughout the show, was old even when Chesterton wrote it into the Father Brown stories in the early 20th century.
A detached, dispassionate shooting style further exposes the weak plots and uncertain focus. Journalism is a visceral profession, whether in the office or on the streets. Pressure, both physical and mental, crowds each day, and, if any show required television’s penchant for claustrophobic close-ups and tight framing, this is it. Yet the wide-open Ledger set is sparsely populated and silent, with many shots allowing expanses of reflective glass and cold lighting to minimize the actors. Deadline‘s camera also lingers on the margins of the action (for example, in editorial meetings), and often seeks high or low angles that further distance the audience from the action. This technique might have worked had the scenes themselves sizzled, either through action choreographed within the frame, or in dialogue and story line that revealed character or even both. But all too often, the actors are static, the lines anodyne, and the cumulative impact of scenes disappointingly predictable.
Last season Third Watch and Once and Again built a shaky 10pm oasis in the creative desert of Monday night prime time. This season, Deadline debuted at 20 in the Nielsen ratings, a good score for a new Monday night show. Maybe the Wolf name did it. Or maybe the big name casting did it. Or maybe the Law and Order-generated media buzz did it. Holding that rating, though, will be tough, and ultimately more a testament to the lack of intelligent viewing alternatives than any intrinsic qualities the show itself has yet shown.
Editor’s Note: On 1 November 2000, NBC announced that it is cancelling this series, effective immediately, as it had lost half its audience between its premiere episode on 2 October and last Monday’s final episode.