This Week in TV

TV and popular culture.
March 17 2005 7:00 PM

This Week in TV

Fainting models! Stoned reverends! Plus: The best show on television gets a stay of execution.

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All right, so I missed the model passing out from exhaustion on America's Next Top Model last night—I was over at CNN Headline News, watching Nancy Grace ululate with joy over the impending execution of Scott Peterson as she raised a bloody skull up to the sun. But now that I've seen the mesmerizing fainting-model animated .gif on Stereogum, I'm thanking the gods that UPN has the sense to re-run ANTM every Friday night at 9. Why don't more network shows make this same choice? What else is the wasteland of Friday night television for if not to catch up on the funny stuff you missed during the week?

Speaking of which: Did you catch Al Green's nut-out on The Daily Show last night? I don't know if he was high on the Lord or just … one of the Lord's natural products, but Green and Stewart pretty much blew off the interview and settled into a nice groove of pure undergraduate silliness. At one point the Rev. Al burst into a brief falsetto version of a Smokey Robinson tune, and Stewart pretended to get up to leave: "I have to go have sex now." In response, the good Reverend lay down and briefly humped the couch to demonstrate the ardor his music has inspired over the years. The audience roared in approval, and Stewart's genuine, high-pitched giggles were a sight to see. The Daily Show booker should think about pursuing fewer starlets and policy wonks and more spaced-out soul singers. … 4:00 p.m.

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Calloo! Callay! Who knows whether it was because of viewer outcry, critical acclaim, or David Simon's silver-tongued way with HBO execs, but the network just announced that The Wire has been renewed for a fourth season. Now that the three-season storyline of the Barksdale drug war has come to an end (and the show has lost its most unforgettable character, Stringer Bell, in a gangland shoot-out), a whole new set of complex, novelistic storylines will have to be put in place. (The Wire is a rare exception to my usual dislike for shows with multi-season plot arcs, because it earns the viewers' attention with its intellectual ambition. As one critic wrote, "Most TV crime series aspire to John Grisham's level. The Wire aspires to Dostoevsky's.") The press release announcing Season 4 says that "the fourth season of THE WIRE will expand its focus to include a look at the role of the educational system in an urban environment."  Somehow I get the feeling that, given this show's unflinching vision of Baltimore as a dystopic urban hellhole, more than one child is going to get left behind.  … 3:52 p.m.

Discovery Times Channel couldn't have picked a better moment to rebroadcast the legendary Edward R. Murrow documentary Harvest of Shame, which first aired on the prime-time news broadcast CBS Presents on Thanksgiving Day of 1960 and will be re-shown in its entirety at 8 p.m. ET, with an introduction by Walter Cronkite.

As the White House defends its use of prefab "video news releases" and payola pundits, as Dan Rather leaves his anchor post in a cloud of shame and scandal, it's easy to get  misty about the good old days of TV news reporting. For those too young to remember Murrow's career, he's familiar mainly as a symbol of old-school journalistic integrity; audio clips of his rich, lilting voice reporting from the war front are often used to set the tone in nostalgic radio essays about the Greatest Generation.

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Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

But as Aaron Barnhart writes in this week's TV Barn column, Murrow's last year at CBS (he left in 1961 to become director of the U.S. Information Agency under John Kennedy) was, like Rather's, haunted by questions about his journalistic integrity. As it turned out, interviewees on Murrow's show Person to Person were sometimes given questions in advance, a revelation which, in the wake of the quiz show scandals, was enough to turn Murrow into persona non grata at the network. Murrow indignantly defended the practice of rehearsing interviews: "Surely [then-CBS president Frank] Stanton knows that cameras, lights and microphones do not just wander around a home. … The alternative to a degree of rehearsal would be chaos."

My point is not to expose Murrow as an interview-rigging fraud, but just to point out that debates about what constitute objectivity and bias, real and fake news on television, are far older than Memogate or the payola scandal. By current standards of objectivity for broadcast journalists, Harvest of Shame looks so partisan as to be downright pinko, from the black-and-white shots of grizzled faces straight out of Walker Evans photographs, to the Woody-Guthrie-style protest song at a cherry-pickers' union meeting in Stockton, Calif. ("We must stand as one or fail/Keep your hand upon the dollar/and a dime for every pail.") But editorializing voiceover notwithstanding, Harvest of Shame holds up after 45 years as an example of first-rate documentary filmmaking for television. And there's no denying that the injustices it chronicles are, by any standard, horrendous: An African-American woman who has been picking beans for 21 of her 29 years speaks of her inability to earn the dollar a day needed to care for her fourteen children. A child in a labor camp cheerfully points out the hole chewed in his bed by a rat.

Perhaps the documentary's most surprising moment is the resolutely un-spun response of then-Secretary of Labor James Mitchell when asked for his reaction to the plight of farm workers: "I feel sad. I feel sad because it's a blot on my conscience. […] It's morally wrong for an employer to exploit his workers." Sad? Blot? Conscience? Did somebody forget to brief this man on the day's talking points?

There's an almost mythic quality to Murrow's closing narration: "The fruits of the earth must be harvested to feed and sustain mankind. The question posed by thoughtful men is: Must the two to three million migrants who help feed their fellow Americans work, travel and live under conditions that harm the dignity of man?" As moving as anything we've seen in the documentary is the fact that, addressing the audience, Murrow seems to be waiting for an answer. ... 12:26 p.m.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

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"It's like Ocean's 11 meets Survivor!" gushes the Web site for Court TV's new reality show Impossible Heists. And it is, sort of, in the sense that the show combines the poor character development and shoddy scripting of the Steven Soderbergh film with the glitzy amorality of the ur-reality show. In last night's premiere episode, two teams competed to recreate a famous real-life burglary in which a $5 million Titian painting was lifted from the hyper-fortified mansion of an English lord. Of course, even Lord Bath's place didn't boast a chainlink pen containing a pride of man-eating lions, over which the thieves had to rappel on a zip line. But how else would the teams gather lion dung to smear on their feet, thus masking their scent to evade capture by watchdogs?

The contestants on Impossible Heists are a predictably attractive, drably diverse lineup with reality-TV-ready résumés: One lists her profession as "acrobat," while another is a "former celebrity bodyguard." The rapid MTV-style editing manages to make the teams' criminal machinations simultaneously frantic and boring. The whole jumbled mess is narrated by Penn Jillette in a voiceover so constant and overbearing it leaves no space for the emergence of personalities among the contestants, whose spoken contributions are limited to off-camera shrieks of "Nice job!" or "Let's move it!" At the end of the hour, I still couldn't tell Melissa the stuntwoman ("She's a fighter who won't take crap from anyone") from T.J. the Desert Storm vet ("She may look like a million dollars, but she'd rather be stealing [it]!").

Unwatchable as it is, Impossible Heists is innovative in at least one sense. There are already some reality shows featuring people with questionable ties to the underworld, like the mob family in Growing Up Gotti or the sketchy lowlifes of Dog the Bounty Hunter. But to my knowledge, this is the first reality contest that encourages its participants to simulate an actual felony. What's next, Roofie Date-Rape Challenge? I Can't Believe It's Not Murder? … 11:22 a.m.

In other crime TV-related news, both Court TV and CNN are planning hourlong broadcasts this Thursday night about last weekend's Atlanta killings and the capture of Brian Nichols. Yes, the story of Ashley Smith's conversion of her captor is a moving one, but I'm with TVNewser: Enough already with the nonstop coverage. The woman has already talked her way out of a terrifying hostage situation, caused a physical scuffle between police and a crazed ABC booker fixated on an "exclusive" interview, and appeared before the press to read a statement saying, in essence, leave me alone. We get it: She's an angel. She makes good pancakes. Let it go. There'll always be another true-crime story to cover in excruciating, yet pointless detail. Oh, wait: Here comes one now.  ... 11:36 a.m.

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