Sunday, December 13, 2009

TV: When the guests call the shots

Would we consider reviewing the latest Barbara Walters special? Pass, we're not interested. Really, our ABC friend said, because one of our 'friends' had reviewed and panned it. Our ABC friend was referring to the critic who hates all women and has both a print and audio platform from which to spew his misogyny. Okay, we were interested. Get us a copy by Friday and we'll take a look.


Which is how it started, but not how it ended by any means. Be careful what you wish for because, at the end, our ABC friend, bothered by what we'd learned about the shooting of the special, begged us not to weigh in.

ABC handed over one hour of prime time last week to air Barbara Walters 10 Most Fascinating People or Barbara Walters Presents The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2009. Ten people in one hour (and it was actually more than ten) would make for six minutes per person -- provided there were no commercials, no opening and no closing segments. What can you learn about a person in four minutes or less? Not a great deal.

Alternate close ups between Walters and singer Lady Gaga.

Barbara Walters: Are you bisexual?

Lady Gaga: I do like women.

Barbara Walters: Have you had sex with women?

Lady Gaga: Uhm, uh, well I -- my goodness.

Alternate close ups between Walters and 'reality' TV personality Kate Gosselin.

Barbara Walters: Are you scared?

Kate Gosselin: Yes, I don't think I would be sane if I wasn't. I have a lot of responsibilities.

And that was just the start of the opening. She'd quickly ask professional cross-dresser Tyler Perry (who is African-American) what is was like to be in a room of White people, she'd ask singer Adam Lambert if he regretted that performance, debate with Glenn Beck over whether or not he'd said the Obama administration was infiltrated with Socialists and more and, sadly, this was just the opening. It was like a really bad Saturday Night Live parody.

The stars?

Not Walters.

In fact, she came off the worst. But that's to be expected when "most fascinating" is really just "Look who made Liz Smith's gossip columns this year!" That is how the 80-year-old Walters decides what's "fascinating." The first time La Liz ever wrote about Lady Gaga this year, she wrote that she thought Lady Gaga was a drag queen. [An idiot 'reporter' for NPR last week decided to bore listeners with that rumor but was surprisingly uninformed as to who had helped spread it: Liz Smith.] So naturally Barbara would decide she must ask Lady Gaga about sex.

It was really surprising because Meredith Baxter came out earlier this month, telling the world she's happily involved with a woman and, to 'mark' the occasion, Walters and the kvetchers of The View (ABC daytime chat show) decided it was cause to yet again invite on Tubby Perez Hilton and the general consensus was that if he had forced Meredith out of the closet, that was wrong. Perez insisted that he didn't call it "outing," he called it "reporting." The look on Walters face was a study in disagreement.

But there she was probing Lady Gaga about whether or not she'd slept with women? The hypocrisy was bad enough but if you're going to drive down that highway, don't slam on the brakes. When Lady Gaga was visibly uncomfortable, Walters offered, "You don't have to answer me. We can leave it as a mystery if you want."

Leave it as a mystery? After Walters had badgered Lady Gaga with one question after another? And what sort of reporter bears down on anything and then decides to walk it back? (For the record, Lady Gaga finally admitted to "sexual relations" with women. Why she was being cross-examined on prime time, we have no idea.)

The segment was telling because Walters wanted to have it both ways. She wanted to do the sort of questioning she makes a show of sneering at and then she wants to soften it by backing away. Another segment was telling as well.

"Let's meet a man accused of turning politics into a circus," declared Barbara Walters causing many in the news industry, no doubt, to cry back at the TV screen, "Look who's talking!" She was going to profile right-wing Glenn Beck. What did we learn from the interview? He's apparently a libertarian and not a Republican. Never having watched any of his shows (or listened), we didn't know. What we did know was that he took over the interview. What we did know was that Barbara was furious.

Glenn made a joke about whether or not Barbara was going to ask him what kind of tree he was? Barbara Walters claims she has never asked that question. (Archival footage begs to differ.) She claims that's a nasty, mean lie that has taken root because of Gilda Radner's hurtful performance as Baba Wawa on Saturday Night Live. Now, in real time, when Gilda was doing it, Walters publicly stated she thought the skit was funny. Even after Gilda left SNL, Walters continued to maintain that she thought it was funny. It's only after Gilda's dead and unable to respond (typical Walters' move) that Barbara Walters begins telling the world how hurtful she found that skit (actually all the Baba Wawa skits Gilda did).

When Beck brought it up, he might as well have farted on air by the look on Walters' face. She tried to pass it over but he wouldn't let her. Finally (look at her eyes in that moment), she asks him if he was a tree, what kind of tree would he be?

And he tells her that now she's ruined it.

For the record, Glenn Beck insisted he'd stated Socialists had been invited into the Obama administration, not invaded. Walters didn't want to explore but he's correct. Van Jones wasn't the only one, isn't the only one. And, of course, during the campaign Barack used a well known Socialist as his internet coordinator. We're not sure who, because Barbara didn't ask, Glenn would identify as a Socialist and who he wouldn't but whether he's going by facts or gut instinct, he's not incorrect. (And for the record, Ronald Reagan also had Socialists in his administration. George W. Bush had a Trotskyite.)

Glenn pushed Barbara around on camera. He was even 'breaking the third wall' by ignoring her and turning to the camera to speak directly to the audience. It was not one of Walters' finer moments.

But it wasn't the only time she got pushed around and we were almost at the end of the program when we caught on to that.

Michelle Obama was the person of the year. Now that had us wondering because, outside of Lady Gaga and Sarah Palin, we were having trouble grasping what the women did in 2009 that made them fascinating? Gosselin is apparently fascinating because her marriage ended. The wife of a governor was termed fascinating by Barbara Walters because . . . her husband cheated on her? And she lived through it? (Was she supposed to commit suicide? After the special was broadcast, the woman announced she was divorcing the governor.)

Silly us, we would have thought a person (male or female) actually had to do something in order to qualify as "fascinating." But, again, all one really had to 'do' to be a blip on Walters' radar was pop up repeatedly in Liz Smith's gossip columns. Sarah Palin being the best proof. Despite raging against Palin after Palin hurt Liz's propaganda -- Palin and Tina Fey are friends! -- and insisting she'd never write about Palin again, Liz Smith spent all of 2009 doing little but writing of Sarah Palin. No offense to Palin but we actually think Liz Smith's obvious hatred and rage is so much more "fascinating" than anything else in 2009.

Well almost. Palin, the woman who ran for vice president in 2008, resigned as governor in 2009, published a best selling book and is being greeted by large crowds around the country was ranked by Walters as number seven while Michelle Obama, who's never run for public office and hasn't done anything on her own, was ranked number one.

We would have disagreed and written about Barbara Walters' long, long history of being overly close with First Ladies (she loathed Hillary but she loves Nancy Reagan, Big Babs Bush and Laura Bush). We would have written at length about how Barbara Walters' slavish devotion to Nancy Reagan ruined Walters' third marriage.

But all those thoughts vanished as we watched Michelle Obama and wondered why she was wearing such a short skirt? And why we couldn't stop noticing it. Then we got it: The lighting. The lighting was hitting Michelle's knee, highlighting the skirt. The lighting was hitting the knee because she was seated wrong. The interview, filmed at the White House, was lit like a beauty commercial.

Which led us to work the phones.

Barbara Walters has, over the years, trashed a number of people we know and consider friends because of their 'demands' or actions during interviews. (Diana Ross, for example, had the 'audacity' to repaint a room before an interview. Since it was, in fact, Diana Ross' house, she can do whatever she damn well wants and Barbara Walters needs to get the hell over an interview that took place over thirty years ago.) Like Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters has agreed to many demands by interview subjects and then slammed them for the demands after. Trivia note, Barbara also loves to lie that no one touches her footage. She doesn't let her subjects edit the interviews. That's a lie and she better get honest on that one before she dies because we have two friends who intend to go public when she dies about the fact that they edited their interviews.

We know a professional glamor lighting job when we see one and we started working the phones. We started in the news department even though Walters no longer works in the news department -- the reason is because they always have the best dish. We were soon speaking to people who worked on the special who were confirming that, yes, the White House dictated the lighting. They also dictated that Michelle would be shot from the right.

Why from the right?

Her right eye is significantly smaller than the left. The thinking was it would be less noticeable if Michelle was photographed from that angle. The lighting took "twice as long as a normal set-up" for a Walters interview due to the demands that back lighting and stream lighting be used throughout in order to soften Michelle's harsh features.

Yet for all the care that was taken, Michelle couldn't hit her own marks. She slid forward in her chair (we've long noted her tendency to slouch) which is why her knee was reflecting so much light and, as she slouched more and more, all those harsh facial lines (forehead and around the eyebrows), which were 'burned out' by careful lighting, became more noticeable.

You know what we find fascinating? A plain to fierce looking woman insisting upon being seen as beautiful even when, at her age, she should have long grasped that beauty wasn't going to come knocking on her front door. A woman who should spend far more time working on real issues instead attempts to pursue painted on glamor. And even on those rare occasions when she manages to step out in something that's not a complete fashion travesty, she's still slouching and bow legged. If you don't grasp how desperately Michelle needs to work on grace, you obviously missed her digging in her ass while speaking on camera to Brian Williams earlier this year.

If the thong rides up, maybe Michelle should consider other underwear?

We really don't find Michelle Obama and her empty life and her empty pursuits fascinating. She's becoming a rather insipid and, yes, tragic figure. But if 'star power' is getting to dictate your own terms, than she truly was the most fascinating of all the people on Barbara's list: Only she got to dictate how she was filmed, from what angle and how she would be lighted. Again, being Michelle, she screwed it all up.

When we were finishing up the research for this piece, we called our ABC friend who asked for the review and he was dismayed to learn we'd discovered the White House demands (remember folks, a starlet lives in the Oval Office) and that we intended to write about it.

But couldn't we just focus on the positive, he nervously asked?

What positive? You can't cover ten people in one hour (or twelve people, the number Barbara actually found 'fascinating'). It was a cheaply made 'news' special that never went beyond the superficial or the sensationalistic. If ABC intends to air another next year, they might try involving viewers and getting them to vote on who the ten most fascinating were -- it would certainly be better than letting Walters waste another year scouring Liz Smith's columns as she attempts to 'make sense' of what's happening.
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