Sunday, August 28, 2005

TV Review: Dateline New York ... Warm Fuzzy

Ever wonder why the compartive nobody Brian Williams was picked over Stone Phillips to sit in the anchor chair at Nightly News? We can't be sure but we think it might have to do with the fact that Williams, unlike Phillips, isn't prone to wearing bulky sweaters, with busy patterns, on camera which make him look like Angela Landsbury gearing up for Murder She Wrote: The Reunion!

Maybe they thought it would make him come off like the Mr. Rogers of the news crowd? The show wants nothing more than to give you a case of the warm fuzzies.

Phillips still posseses the best (and sharpest) set of cheek bones of anyone in the "news" set on TV (eat your heart out, Diane Sawyer) but his work on Dateline is all "soft focus." Fuzzy little bits of footage with Phillips doing the Oprah glum-nod, the Oprah dazzling-smile while the voice overs soak every moment in total cheese.

Dateline's a strange sort of "news" program. It's as though, in topic choice and delivery, you're at the kitchen table, sharing a cup of coffee with Ethel Mertz who's catching you up on the goings on in the building.

Crime's a big topic on Dateline, old crime. Nothing too fresh when possible. Which is why Katie Couric interviews the woman raped in Central Park years after the fact (when the woman's on a book tour). It's why this coming Friday's Dateline takes a, we're sure "hard hitting," look at the O.J. trial ten years later. Anything too close to the present might spoil the warm fuzzies.

Watching Stone Phillips, once considered a serious journalist, coo, nod, frown, pout and (most of all) beam, we honestly wouldn't be surprised if they traded in the opening theme music (please do), handed Phillips a guitar and let him open each show strumming while singing "Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood . . ."

So the program that aired Friday was titled "The Long Road Home." And it lasted for two hours but it felt more like four. To nutshell it, an American soldier is ordered to return to America from Vietnam and finish his service in America. Rather than do that, he disappears. In the nineties, his wife and two kids finally learn that he's alive as does the military. Sound familiar? Well Dateline reported on it in the nineties. This is an "update."

Watching, we decided "update" stands for "filler." Like the way Stone Phillip's voice over repeats a comment that someone being interviewed just made. Repeatedly. Or the way they tease out details mistaking them for conflict, "When we return . . . you'll find out that we wasted more time with a segment that went nowhere."

"Wait, wait, Ava, C.I., what happened to the soldier?"

After soft, fuzzy footage of him introducing his girlfriend of ten years to his family, we get more of the same with shots of his mother's cooking him breakfast while he promises to come back and visit here for her 80th birthday -- in two years! For over two decades she thought her son was dead. Now, as she heads towards 80 the best he can do is say, "I'll visit you again in two years?" We didn't think all the warm, fuzzy pieces fit well together. But damned if Dateline didn't try their best to soak the whole episode in soft hues and clothe it in the skins of stuffed teddy bears.

In terms of the military, they're not pressing charges. He won't get his military pension, he does get other benefits. We're told all of that when Phillip's does a classic (and standard for Dateline) wrap up that plays like Ward sitting the Beave down, at the end of Leave It To Beaver, to drop some wisdom on the frivolity the episode revolved around. Which, if you think about it, is the perfect point of reference for Dateline.

Hard hitting news comes out of 60 Minutes. Uncomfortable realities, on the rare occassions they emerge on Dateline, tend to come in the form of a sit down interview with the author of a book which allows reality to be several times removed and in the past (usually the deep past). That's rather distrubing when you think about the commercial they always play during Dateline, the one that boasts more people get their news from NBC than any other network. Exactly what are they getting?

We both know people who work for Dateline and the only thing more amusing than watching the program pass itself off as a "news" show is hearing their excuses. "Well have you watched 20/20 lately!" is a popular refrain. But for our tastes, the best excuse (meaning most laughable) came when one was questioned about the "in depth" reporting on the Bennifer phenomenon.
Maybe we're too jaded but the breathless 'news' that "She's still Jenny from the Block!" was matched only by the defense of the 'report:' which went, we're paraphrasing, "Well 60 Minutes just did a report on an opera star!"

We laugh, we kid, we mock our pals at Dateline. (Openly.) But we think that "defense" was telling and basically sums up the show. They're not going for the gutter ball that is ABC's 20/20. But, at the same time, they aren't reaching for the highs of CBS' 60 Minutes either. In fact, they're aspiring to be a teen beat version of 60 Minutes. "They've got an opera star over at the grown ups table? We'll get a pop star!"

We're not sure whether they're content at the kiddies' table (wouldn't they at least prefer more leg room?) or if they truly believe that they have to dumb down to reach the audiences. (They're very proud of their ratings on Fridays and they do usually manage to lead in their time slot -- on a night when most people aren't watching TV, as we like to remind them.)

Look, the folks at Dateline are a great group of people. At a party, we'd rather be at the kiddie table with them, laughing at everyone else in the room. They're intentionally funny (unlike John Stossel attempting to eat corn on the cob . . . at least we don't think that's intended to be humorous.). They play hard. We just wish they'd aim a little higher in their broadcasts.

In the end, the grade we have to give is one that they're quite familiar with, "Does not live up to potential." If you want to live in the house on Pooh corner, Dateline is the show for you. If you're expecting news in what's billed as a news program, you're going to have look elsewhere.

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