NBC is one class act. Their new CGI-animated sitcom Father of the Pride was still in production last year when Roy Horn, one-half of Siegfried & Roy, the legendary Vegas magic act that inspired the series, nearly died after being mauled onstage by a tiger. Despite the accident, executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg chose not to pull the show from the fall schedule. The decision was, perhaps, inspired by Horn's struggle to survive (or else by the $1.6 million per-episode outlay). In May, the Peacock attempted to deflect criticism over this questionable move by broadcasting video of a partially paralyzed Horn at a publicity event for journalists in Radio City Music Hall. His voice slurred by the stroke that occurred during the incident, Horn waved to audiences with his right arm—the one that's still mobile—and assured them that he and Siegfried were looking forward to Father of the Pride, since "laughter is the best medicine." The stunt was so tasteless, even NBC's own Conan O'Brien mocked his employer in his monologue that night: "He's been horribly mauled! Let's make a show about it!"
Conan's joke was an exaggeration, of course—Father of the Pride is not about the accident, but about the imagined backstage lives of a family of Siegfried & Roy's performing white lions. But a month after the show's premiere to generally favorable ratings, Conan's prediction has come to pass. Last night, NBC aired a one-hour special, Siegfried & Roy: The Miracle, in which Maria Shriver sat down with the flamboyant duo in their glitzy Vegas mansion, known as the Jungle Palace, for their first post-incident interview. (Questions about whether Siegfried and Roy are "really" gay have always struck me as oddly beside the point. They're two men who have spent virtually every minute together for 44 years, wearing spangled capes and taming wild animals. Do we really need to know what goes on between their magenta satin sheets?)
Shriver, who, as Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is no stranger to Teutonic showmen in scanty costumes, cooed over the couple in grand Barbara Walters style. "Everything about [their show] was big," Shriver marveled, "from the vanishing elephant, to the smoke-belching dragon, to those unbelievable codpieces they wore." (I had to rewind my TiVo five times: Did Maria Shriver really just say "unbelievable codpieces"? Yes, I believe she did.) The account of the mauling that emerges from Shriver's interview is vague, with both men touchingly anxious to defend the motives of Montecore, the white Bengal tiger who dragged Roy offstage by the neck. "He's the sweetest little tiger in the world," gushed Roy after feeding treats to the big cat, who has since been returned to the Secret Garden, Siegfried & Roy's public zoo at the Mirage Hotel.
We don't see any footage of the attack itself. Officials from the company that produced Siegfried & Roy's Las Vegas spectacle have closely guarded their own videotape of that night's show, citing fears that it would "end up in the hands of media who would then sensationalize this horrible tragedy." Imagine that! The footage I'd really like to see would be from the meeting in which the network shamelessly begged for the tape to include with this special. Instead, NBC contents itself with re-creating the incident through computer animation. In the reenactment, a stylized, robot-like figure representing Roy is attacked by a big cat far less cuddly than the one voiced by John Goodman in Father of the Pride.
Siegfried & Roy: The Miracle combines the worst elements of several unpleasant television genres: the medical voyeurism of surgery shows like Extreme Makeover and Nip/Tuck; the gruesome ambulance-chasing of Fox's World's Most Dangerous Stunts; and the schmaltzy inspiration of Dateline-style tributes to the human spirit (with Shriver rolling soccer balls for Horn to kick as part of his physical therapy: "Is that really hard to do, Roy?" "It takes every inch of my being.") If NBC wants to prove they mean no disrespect to Siegfried & Roy by going forward with Father of the Pride, this special is a funny way of showing it.
Monday, Sept. 13 , 2004
Three years after September 11, televised representations of that day have settled into two categories: those that make us think, and those that make us feel. After a long, sad Saturday spent watching every bit of 9/11-related coverage I could find, I've come to the conclusion that perhaps we could begin to do without the latter. Important as it may be to participate in symbolic acts of collective national grief, how are we served by being dragged back, again and again, to the pain and terror of that day?
On CBS, starting at 8 a.m., you could watch all four hours of the memorial ceremony at Ground Zero, commercial-free. But that ceremony—essentially an unadorned four-hour recitation of the names of all 2,749 victims—seemed better suited to radio than to television. Simply hearing that list of alphabetized names would have sent a starkly powerful message, like an audio version of Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial. But there was something unseemly about the accompanying visuals, the footage of weeping relatives and consoling politicians. Often, the cameras deliberately sought out people at the exact moment their relative's name was being read, or zoomed in on the pictures and mementos they held aloft.
On MSNBC, a one-hour special featured home videos shot near the World Trade Center on the morning of the attacks. Shrieks of "Oh my God!" and "You saved my life!" abound as the amateur cameramen and -women focus their camcorders on the flaming towers, only to be snatched out of harm's way at the last minute by strangers. At some primal, rubbernecking level, it's hard to stop watching this kind of footage, but in the end, this program used fear the same way the filmed memorial ceremony used grief: as a means of bludgeoning its audience into submission. We're left jittery and voyeuristic, capable only of affirming the obvious: yes, that tragedy was horrific, and everything must be done to keep such a thing from happening again. That these videos exist is important; that they should be preserved as historical documents is unquestionable, but must they be ritually aired on September 11 of every year, like It's a Wonderful Life at Christmastime? If we keep dusting off the terrifying footage of that day with no apparent purpose other than pathos, we risk falling into the kind of regressive 9/11 nostalgia Walter Kirn spoke of yesterday in the New York Times magazine. When he first heard Richard Clarke's criticism of the Bush administration, Kirn writes, "I felt a twinge of nostalgia for the lost unity of a couple of years before. … I liked it better when everyone was crying together and the rest of the world was crying for us."
Late Saturday night, the Discovery Channel's new documentary, WTC 9/11: Stories from the Ruins visited Hangar 17 at JFK airport, where between 50,000 and 60,000 pieces of recovered property lie shrouded under tarps, awaiting redistribution to the victims' families. One fireman's widow described how, six months after the bombings, her husband's helmet was recovered from the ruins and brought to her house. For two days she slept with the dusty, dented helmet next to her in bed. But soon, she admits with a self-deprecating laugh, she realized that fetishizing the object in that way "wasn't very healthy," and she returned it to the fire department for a future 9/11 memorial. "The helmet," she observes, "gave me the strength to call it quits." No one would argue that that by relinquishing the helmet, that widow was anywhere near forgetting her husband. But she understood that mourning is about learning how long to cling to the symbols of what's lost, and when it's time to call it quits. 2:03 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 10 , 2004
The premise of Jack & Bobby, the new WB series premiering this Sunday (9 p.m. ET), reminds me of nothing so much as that old Saturday Night Live skit about a sitcom pilot with the title "What if George Washington Had A Robot Friend?" Jack & Bobby must be the result of a similar pitch meeting. Both shows are high-concept, yet pointless. This kind of "what if?" conceit begs a go-nowhere answer: Wow, that would be really weird.
The meeting is easy to imagine: What if there were two brothers named Jack and Bobby McCallister, and we knew watching the show that one of them would grow up to be president? But check it out: What if the story of these two brothers had nothing to do with the Kennedys? (This disclaimer was anxiously issued in every press release and preview about the show.) The show could be set in the present day, in the fictional college town of Hart, Missouri, to reinforce the point that, really, it has nothing to do with the Kennedys. And hey, what if the other characters—interviewees from some future Ken Burns-style documentary glimpsed in occasional flash-forwards to the year 2046—reflected on the irony of the McCallister brothers' first names, even though their offbeat single mother, pot-smoking college professor Grace McCallister (Christine Lahti), insisted that she named the boys after their mysteriously absent and much-mythologized father? What if, in short, we capitalized on the name recognition of two tragically assassinated politicians to stir up some interest in our latest teen TV soap?
The obvious question that arises from Jack & Bobby's hijacking of the Kennedy mystique is: How is this gimmick is supposed to retain viewers after the pilot? Once it's clear that Jack & Bobby aren't, well, Jack and Bobby, this is just another WB show about some good-looking high-school kids with the odd talking head thrown in for gravitas. Sunday's pilot revolves around the mystery of which brother will end up as president—the handsome, popular jock with a way with the ladies, or the brainy, awkward mama's boy with a yen to start a school Space Club. (Perhaps the answer depends on who you vote for come November.) But by the end of this first episode, it's already been revealed which sibling will grow up to be the leader known as "the Great Believer," and which one will end up—well, I'll leave something for you to discover on Sunday night. As the season goes on and kids (this has to be the target audience, right?) begin to get into the story arcs about freshman cliques and dates for the homecoming bonfire, where does this leave the whole time-traveling political narrative? As we become ever more involved in Jack, Bobby, and Grace's banal present, the portentous voice-overs about President McCallister's grandiose future will come to seem like an unwelcome civics lesson. Jack & Bobby would seem to have built in the formula for its own demise.
Then again, you never know. Another series in the great tradition of "What if George Washington Had A Robot Friend?" was CBS' Early Edition, which asked the scintillating question: What if there was a guy who got tomorrow's newspaper … today? I never watched the show, but I always used to crack up at the opening credits, in which the hero unfolded his morning paper, learned of some imminent fire or robbery only he could prevent, and ran out the door with his breakfast still on the table. How he must have prayed for a slow news day, just once, so he could finish his coffee! Early Edition seemed doomed to run out of plotlines, yet it ran for four whole seasons before getting canceled, and is still popular today in reruns on the PAX network. Maybe Jack & Bobby will be such a hit it will even catch up with its own time-travel conceit. What if the series was still running in 2040, the year of the fictional President McCallister's election? That would be really weird. 12:03 p.m.