The initial wave of reviews for Deadline faulted this new series about a New York City tabloid-newspaper columnist for being inaccurate about the ins and outs of the news business. Ye gods — do you know what you’d get if Deadline did offer a true portrayal of your average newspaper? A weekly hour of sour-looking editors scurrying to fulfill the focus-group mandates imposed upon them by their corporate bosses. This would send even more viewers away from NBC at 9 p.m. and back to that highly enjoyable example of newspaper-columnist inaccuracy, CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond.
Me, I like the fact that Deadline presents its hero as a smug, clever, overpaid ($300,000 per annum, the pilot helpfully informed us) overdresser, and that this caricature is embodied by feature-film character actor Oliver Platt with the jaunty glee of a performer relishing the chance to be a leading man for a change. I like the way Law & Order exec-producer Dick Wolf borrows L&O’s way with current-events-conscious plots, but mixes genres up by making Platt’s Wallace Benton character an eccentric amateur sleuth — it’s Murder, He Wrote with a laptop.
And dig this crazy-quilt cast: indie-film goddesses Lili Taylor (as a gossip columnist) and Hope Davis (as a feature writer and Benton’s ex-wife), Bebe Neuwirth, still buff from her stint in the Broadway production of Chicago (she plays Benton’s fond-of-leather editor — no focus-group fetish for her), plus regular appearances by Tom Conti doing a wicked Scottish version of publisher Rupert Murdoch. Just as I don’t look to ER for medical advice, I think Deadline should be able to take all the creative liberties it wants, as long as it provides good stories and some room for these actors to stretch, banter, and preen. (By the way, if anyone needed a clue that Deadline is intended as a breezy exaggeration of newspaper life, Wolf has provided one by calling Lili Taylor’s character ”Hildy” — the same name as Rosalind Russell’s gal-reporter character in Howard Hawks’ great screwball journa-farce, His Girl Friday.) (On the other hand, Hope Davis’ character is named ”Brooke Benton,” and I doubt Wolf wanted to remind the baby boomers in his audience of the ’60s male soul singer whose big hit was ”The Boll Weevil Song.”)
The pilot episode divided Wallace’s time between his paper, the fictitious New York Ledger, and a job teaching a journalism class stuffed with young, attractive go-getters — the better to lure Wolf a more profitable ad-rate demo. The student stuff is a drag (the kids look like Felicity extras who’ve wandered uptown), and it’s clear that the producers know it; subsequent episodes have pushed these pups into the background, and I hope Benton begins playing hooky from his own class after the first marking period.
Certainly, Wallace has committed a few sins against verisimilitude that stop the show dead in its tracks. It was dumb, in the pilot, to have him banish a couple of cops from their own interrogation room so he could question a suspect all by his bad self. Worse, in having Neuwirth’s Nikki nuzzle with a politician whom her paper is covering in one episode and Davis’ Brooke smooch a murder suspect she’s profiling in another, Deadline verges on a Sex and the City-style cartoonishness that wastes its actresses’ time.
Much better are the frequent newsroom scenes in which the stars sit around pitching stories and headlines. These moments really do capture the energy and blithe cynicism of newspaper editing. When, in this week’s episode, a prominent socialite is run over by a bus, Benton refers to her as ”the pancake woman” and asks the room how he’s supposed to write an interesting column on her. ”Pour syrup on the pancake,” says Conti’s publisher — that is, lay on the schmaltz for a human-interest story.
Deadline is refreshingly irreverent about its chief protagonist — the show insists on letting the gas out of Benton. ”I have been referred to as the Proust of lower Manhattan,” he boasts at one point. Guest star David McCallum — yes, from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — snaps back, ”Murray Kempton was the Proust of lower Manhattan.” Kempton is, of course, the late New York newspaper columnist known for his python-long, tensile sentence structure; his dapper three-piece suits; and his habit, even unto old age, of listening to classical music on his Walkman while bicycling across the city to cover a story. Boy, wouldn’t the TV critics complaining about the unbelievability of Deadline have a field day with a faithful TV dramatization of Kempton’s life. B+