Again grappling with questions of mortality and disease while exhibiting a degree of candor that’s extremely rare on television, Ted Koppel follows the path he charted during interviews with Morrie Schwartz of “Tuesdays With Morrie” renown, taking a deeply personal look at the cancer battle of his long-time producer, Leroy Sievers. Half of this three-hour presentation will involve a live town hall meeting featuring Lance Armstrong, Elizabeth Edwards and Sievers in the discussion, but based on the taped portion alone, it’s another triumph of journalistic understatement for Koppel — one that showers his new digs at Discovery with distinction.
Sievers has been chronicling his cancer with a sober but far from maudlin series of National Public Radio commentaries and a blog about the experience, from which Koppel draws liberally in chronicling his story. Koppel opens, meanwhile, by talking to Armstrong regarding the defining role cancer has played in his life, which the cyclist credits with helping foster the competitive spirit and endurance that made him a champion.
Still, it’s Koppel’s chats with Sievers — a big, baritone-voiced bear of a guy, with whom Koppel collaborated for 15 years, including being embedded together in Iraq — where the opening 90 minutes really shine. Reflecting the closeness between them, they speak with remarkable frankness about Sievers’ ordeal and his ruminations about death, including the matter of when it’s time to cease the brutal treatment regimen and drink Mai Tais on the beach until the inevitable occurs.
Seeing Christmas lights, Sievers admits thinking, “Is this it? My last Christmas?” By the end of these segments, the audience comes away with a feeling of knowing him and appreciating the loss his passing will represent — not based on any conspicuous tears or group hugs, but the simple conversation that ensues.
After exploring Iran, the U.S.’ security tradeoff and the long war against terrorism in early specials, Koppel’s latest is set against a more delicate and less-demanding backdrop. Yet far from the brazen heart-tugging that generally characterizes human-interest reporting on illness, Koppel dispenses with the conspicuous piano music or manufactured emotion. The tone, rather, doesn’t condescend, invite pity or labor to uplift or deflate, instead bringing illuminating clarity to what a later-stagecancer diagnosis currently means.
Edwards’ cancer and possible presidential contender Fred Thompson’s announcement about his remission from lymphoma have commanded political headlines, rendering the show’s “Living With Cancer” title particularly timely. Still, given the general hysteria that too often characterizes cable news, there’s never really a bad time for reporting that dares to be intelligent and thoughtful as it goes about getting up close and personal.