There's some scary programming lined up for this week: NBC's triple back-to-back reruns of Medium, AMC's 200-hour Monsterfest marathon, or the special one-hour edition of A&E's goth-magician show, Criss Angel Mindfreak. But no Halloween lineup could be spookier than this afternoon's premiere of Geraldo at Large. This new syndicated half-hour tabloid show (check the Web site for times and stations in your area) will run live daily in the time slot previously occupied by the recently canceled A Current Affair.
Why is Geraldo scary? Not because he represents, as he once did, the vanishing point of sleaze for television news. Au contraire: After four decades of bombastic, pathos-laden, aggressive reporting, Rivera has become, as he puts it in this affable interview, the "rock and roll graybeard" of newscasting. His influence has trickled down enough to be detectible even in well-regarded journalists like Anderson Cooper (whose personal asides and abrasive interactions with officials in his coverage of Katrina and the South Asian tsunami bear a distinctly Geraldian stamp). No, Geraldo is scary because he doesn't age, either as a human being or as a brand. Like Oscar Wilde's eternally youthful Dorian Gray, the now 62-year-old Rivera is eerily identical to his mid-'80s incarnation as a pulp reporter and talk-show host. The television news landscape has changed around him, crumbling and rebuilding itself again and again, but Geraldo abides, immutable and changeless as a vampire, his black bottle-brush moustache firmly in place (his vow to shave it if Michael Jackson was convicted was never put to the test). In the opening moments of Geraldo at Large, posed in front of a house blown to splinters by Hurricane Katrina, Rivera might as well still be standing in Al Capone's vault in 1986, next to two empty gin bottles and a pile of dirt.
From the first day out, Geraldo at Large doesn't bother with a mission statement, just gets right into the thick of things with a report on "Katrina Predators"—the 2,000 convicted sex offenders who fled New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm. "Where are they hiding?" asks Geraldo. "Should you be worried?" Silly question, that: As Rivera goes on to gravely inform us, "this peril, ladies and gentlemen, is not just theoretical." Not much is theoretical on At Large—the show traffics in the most primitive affects of news reporting: outrage, pathos, and above all, fear. Chopper crash in Atlanta. Stalled roller coaster in Tampa. All are noted in passing, in the glancing style of a pre-commercial bumper from a cable news show, but after the initial tease, never mentioned again.
Like the half-hour daily entertainment magazines (Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight), Geraldo at Large manages to manufacture a vague atmosphere of news-ness that sweeps you pleasantly along, as Rivera questions New Orleans cops about the perverts-on-the-lam story ("Does it make you angry, Sarge?"), or encourages a legal analyst to speculate on the Pamela Vitale murder case ("Was there a Satanic carving in this woman's back? Is there anything about the occult or cults that's going on here?"). As a closing sign-off, Geraldo kisses two fingers, then holds them up in a "V for Victory" sign—is this his traditional gesture of farewell? A search for the phrase "Geraldo finger kiss"—possibly the kinkiest phrase I've ever Googled—yielded nothing.
In another recent interview (Geraldo may have his limits as an interviewer, but he's a fantastic interview subject), Rivera had this to say about the critical bias against him: "Bill Moyers could urinate on a tree and the writers would say, 'Oh, how elegant.' ... I could get an interview with Jesus, and they'd say, 'He was too hard on him, too soft on him, look at the way he was chummy with him.' " Maybe so, but if PBS had Bill Moyers peeing on a tree up against Fox's Geraldo/Christ exclusive, I know where I'd tune in. In fact, with November sweeps just under way, Fox might want to give that some thought.