The Smoking Gun TV gets slashed.

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Aug. 21 2003 5:20 PM

The Smoking Gun, Slashed

A Web site turns into a TV show, and it ain't pretty.

Mo Rocca is good to go, but Smoking is stale
Mo Rocca is good to go, but Smoking is stale

Last week's elegant complaint that the movie was not as good as the book (Le Divorce) has been replaced by a more rambunctious complaint that the TV show is not as good as the Web site (TheSmokingGun.com).

The Smoking GunTV (Court TV)—a graphics-heavy rehash of some of the vaunted Web site's most amusing and trivial criminal investigations—premiered Wednesday night in a form most advance critics hadn't seen: a half-hour special followed by another half-hour of exactly the same show. The weird programming choice was a result of what the channel called "creative changes"—gross eleventh-hour slashing of video intended to turn the original hourlong premiere, which many critics had previewed and savaged, into a shorter, better show that audiences would like.

This unorthodox premiere reflected a very Weblike way of thinking: Changes can be made at the last minute, even after early feedback. If TheSmokingGun.com—or, say, Slate—gets a fact wrong or even lands a joke badly, the temptation to tinker, even after a piece is live, can be powerful. Equally powerful, however, is the imperative, when a Web site joins forces with a pre-1995 medium like television, to learn old-fashioned media professionalism and prove you're a player and not just some dot-com flake. For The Smoking Gun TV, this might have meant respecting Court TV's lineup by turning in an hourlong show when that's what the channel had scheduled and promoted, and locking their review copies more than a few hours in advance of the show's premiere. As it is, Court TV looks nuts airing the one episode of the same show twice in a row, and critics have all reviewed a show that will never air. Nice.

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But the rogues at TheSmokingGun.com, it appears, will tip their hat to no man, not even his honor Court TV. William Bastone and Danny Green, who co-founded the site in 1997, set it up as an archive of primary documents: mug shots, contracts, court records, wiretap transcripts, all manner of curious papers that can be acquired without a FOIA. Bastone, who was once a crusading investigative reporter for the Village Voice, may have initially hoped to agitate the public with evidence of organized crime and political double-dealing. In fact, what he and Green published, above all, were stars and semi-stars in compromising positions (like divorce), the paperwork from which sometimes makes for funny reading. And staring. For example, if you need another look at Robert Downey Jr. looking more fervidly handsome and bent on destruction than ever a man has, it's worth returning to his mug shot. (No kidding: Actors playing Hamlet should use it for inspiration.) These discoveries didn't seem to displease Bastone and Green, who took advantage of the public's apparent desire for transparency-in-celebrity to invent their own kind of gleeful, if small-scale, muckraking.

"Gleeful and small-scale" seems to be the mandate for The Smoking Gun TV, too. The hourlong version was bloated and boring, like many bad variety shows, while the short version—the one that aired—is featherweight but hardly reprehensible. Excellent graphics have been imported from the Web site and enlivened. Past Smoking Gun triumphs are pleasant enough to relive (though details of the 1997 divorce of Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson is appallingly old news). Best of all, The Daily Show's Mo Rocca, here the easy-man host, gets the general joke of news trivia, and he's happy to oblige the overall conceit. (When the show got panned in previews, he told reporters, "It has been difficult on my family—my 8-year-old daughter, Sally. You know how vicious second-graders can be about the Daily News TV column.")

Don't get me wrong: I didn't laugh during the show. But I was charmed, and I think the show might pull through yet. What it needs, urgently, is more material (a hash-brownie charge against someone from For Love or Money 2?), as well as a serious commitment to its chief asset, Mo Rocca. Never has a host been more good-to-go. On Wednesday night, Rocca appeared in soft-focus for an old Martha Stewart story, got a rosacea makeover to look like Nick Nolte, and even sold some hard horrible lines.

Without fresh material, after all, the show has little but its writing. It needs Daily Show-quality comedy writers, since Rocca is going to have to propel the show with stand-up when he has few real smoking guns. Fax in the jokes: Rocca's clearly up for anything. "There's something about Dwayne 'Dog' Chapman hunting down Frenchie Davis which just arouses me," he said, ending Wednesday's night's benighted first show. Frenchie Davis? Does anyone remember her? Jon Stewart would never go out on a line like that.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.

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