Consider it a small miracle: a comedy series that has actual … comedy. The “Nightline”-spoofing ensemble sitcom “Lateline” is everything that its fellow network spring-tryout half-hours are not: sly, edgy, spirited, charmingly cynical and populated by a bevy of lovable eccentrics who don’t treat a punch line like a medicine ball. It may be premature to call it a decidedly wackier “Larry Sanders Show” of the Washington political set, but it surely has the potential to take dead aim at the Beltway — and at the newsmagazine form itself — and fire devastating bull’s-eyes.
“Lateline” isn’t at all a direct takeoff of Ted Koppel & Co., but more a “Mary Tyler Moore Show”-styled character comedy. The sitcom uses a mythical latenight newsmakers/issues series as a backdrop for satirizing the chaos, panic and runaway egos that clash and detonate on the other side of the camera. And like “Larry Sanders,” this show-within-a-show strides all over the life/art separation line by incorporating real-life guests.
Moreover, the creation of “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Al Franken and “Cosby Show” vet John Markus often plays with an even bolder sense of absurdity than does “Sanders,” given that it’s utilizing, for its show-within-a-show guests, neophyte performers like former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and gay rights activist Candace Gingrich rather than professional actors.
The divertingly goofy Franken (who penned the opening script with Markus) stars here as Al Freundlich, a hack in horn-rims who fancies himself an upholder of journalistic integrity in his job as a correspondent for the fictitious series “Lateline.” He has no clue that he’s the staff joke, and no one’s bothered to tell him.
Surrounding Freundlich are Vic Karp (terrific work from Miguel Ferrer), the tightly wound, vaguely sinister executive producer; Gale Ingersoll (the comely Megyn Price), the show’s petulant producer whose blond tresses belie sharp news instincts; the loose-cannon assistant Mona (Catherine Lloyd Burns); the wisecracking show booker Briana (Sanaa Lathan); and the transparently ambitious intern Raji (Ajay Naidu).
But the show’s true scene-stealer is old pro Robert Foxworth as the show’s resident Ted Baxter incarnation, the preening, womanizing anchorman Pearce McKenzie.
Opener finds Pearce announcing his retirement on the air as a ploy to extort “Diane Sawyer money” from his employer, while poor sap Freundlich deludes himself into believing he’s next in line for the anchor chair. The pilot does a solid, if somewhat bland, job of establishing the characters, with Price standing out as a budding star.
Where “Lateline” hits its stride is in an uproarious seg scheduled to air April 7 in which the show molds an entire program around the breaking news that Buddy Hackett had died. That night’s guests, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, are inspired to sing and bop along to a clip of Hackett’s “Music Man” performance of “Shipoopi.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is entertainment.
Franken, Markus and producer-director Andy Ackerman borrow from “Larry Sanders” the device of shooting the “on-air” footage on videotape to stand out from the filmed background interaction.
Working against the show’s potential success, however, is its placement in network primetime, which peels away one reality layer that’s so essential to HBO’s “Larry Sanders”: the freedom to have its characters swear and vent with abandon. And anytime the medium turns the camera on itself, however irreverently, it’s a dice roll whether the insider tone will prove too obscure to reel in the Nielsen masses.
Yet “Lateline” arrives boasting such a clever premise and smart ensemble that it’s hard not to like its chances, particularly with Foxworth swatting every line out of the park. Tech credits are top-notch.