Gillian Flynn
August 13, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Checking in on the network morning shows

Rooting for NBC’s Today show is like saying you think the head cheerleader is cool: It’s just too obvious. So on a recent hard-core, news-bite-and-recipe-laden comparison of the Big Three nets’ morning shows, I was hoping to find some nicks in ”Today”’s shiny little machine. Ultimately, though, it must be said: ”Today” is the best at blending good cheer, razzy chemistry, and lively interviews. Anchor Katie Couric, summer-tanned and sleek as a seal, has been on fire lately, be it her feisty tete-a-tete with Michael Moore or her own wisely placed, self-mocking jabs. These moments — she’s great at floating hammy puns and then puncturing them — almost absolve a preoccupation with her own adorability. One note, however: Enough with the legs! Poor Teresa Heinz Kerry was so carefully tucked behind the mesmerizing Couric gams, the convention-week interview seemed more a platform for Pilates than politics.

Couric’s coanchor is the very decent and equally sharp Matt Lauer. While Lauer’s been a bit soft this summer — from his mannered interview with Osama bin Laden’s brother to his unmocking acceptance of Halle Berry’s claim that her leather Catwoman outfit wasn’t meant to be sexy — he’s still a warm presence, and he and Couric play wonderfully off each other. Unlike the other morning shows, ”Today” allows for some serious banter. That attribute can’t be understated while you’re trying to dribble Cheerios into your mouth.

Chemistry is exactly what Good Morning America‘s Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson lack. The pair replaced the sparkless Kevin Newman and Lisa McRee in 1999 — temporarily, ABC said — but you’d swear they’re still breaking the ice (which is weird, since they also coanchor ”Primetime Thursday”). In addition, their balance is off: Both the persnickety Gibson, with his Felix Unger vibe, and the patrician Sawyer, with her plummy cadence, excel at harder news. This is great when they’re reporting, say, hard news. Gibson’s piece on ”The 9/11 Commission Report” with ABC consultant (and former counterterrorism czar) Richard Clarke refreshingly noted that the report’s much-lauded bipartisanship yielded a document shielding both parties from specific criticism. But the anchors falter on the lighter stuff. In the same month that Couric charmed a famed preemie-turned-healthy toddler, Gibson and Sawyer made stiff bookends to a pint-size singer, who seemed eager to shed herself of the two suits. Sawyer is a good sport about fluff, but you can see her inner machinations working overtime: ”Must make charming remark about juice press.” And don’t get me started on the image of Gibson bouncing joylessly on a power pogo stick.

Last on the morning-chat list is CBS’ ever-changing Early Show, which could rival ”Today” if the format ever smooths out. Harry Smith — along with Hannah Storm, Rene Syler, and Julie Chen — replaced Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson in 2002. Although it’s awkward watching each take a turn speaking like a journalistic Andrews Sister, separated, they do quite nicely. This summer, the game Syler almost pulled off a classic no-no — the celebrity dance lesson — when ”American Idol”’s Fantasia Barrino taught her the ”Bobo.” (Note the word almost.) Storm is consistently bright, and hooray for the Jerry Lewis-channeling Dave Price, who plays wacky weatherman with such gusto it’s almost creepy. (Note the word almost.)

Newsreader Julie Chen is a tougher sell. With her throaty delivery and serious stare, she’s almost a satire of TV newswomen, and…she hosts ”Big Brother,” people! In the end, it’s the genial Smith who keeps me tuned in. He’s self-aware enough to crack wise about inane coverage like lawn irrigation (”Our friends here are amazed by our hose demonstration!”), and he’s an ardent one-on-one interviewer, a true hand talker who seems poised to grab a guest by the lapels and shake a good comment out of him. Enthusiastic and well-informed on lawn care — what more do you want from a morning anchor in the good old summertime? ”Today”: A-; ”GMA”: B-; ”Early”: B+

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