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Lateline fails as a political sitcom

Politics makes strange bedfellows, but not always good sitcoms – as Lateline proves

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Satire, playwright George S. Kaufman once said, is what closes on Saturday night. Maybe so, but can it survive on Tuesdays after Frasier? That’s the question posed by Lateline (9:30-10 p.m.), the new NBC send-up of media and politics cocreated by and starring Saturday Night Live and Politically Incorrect vet Al Franken.

Franken deserves points for ambition. Political humor hasn’t fared well in prime-time history. CBS canceled its high-rated The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969 when the show’s liberal social commentary became too controversial. Norman Lear’s All in the Family and Maude took on their share of hot-button issues (racism, abortion, rape), but the discussions were always couched in the more palatable context of a domestic sitcom. When Lear tried more overtly political material in the early ’90s with NBC’s broad farce The Powers That Be, the series lasted less than a season.

Lateline bears similarities to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Murphy Brown — it’s set in the newsroom of a Nightline-like program, with Franken as chief correspondent Al Freundlich. But it’s more political than MTM and, thankfully, less preachy than Murphy. And unlike ABC’s Spin City, it doesn’t primarily deal with generic political situations (most of Spin‘s find Michael J. Fox helping boss Barry Bostwick remove his sizable foot from his mouth).

Lateline‘s plotlines revolve around real issues (tobacco, labor relations) and feature cameos by actual news makers (ex-surgeon general Joycelyn Elders, Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy). And herein lies one of the show’s problems: Most pols just ain’t funny. It’s not in their job descriptions. One episode describes Dick Gephardt as ”one of the biggest stiffs in Washington,” and the House minority leader proves it with his ossified punchline readings. (Don’t expect any Rush Limbaugh guest shots, either, given the title of Franken’s best-seller, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.)

Like Just Shoot Me, the previous post-Frasier show, Lateline lets down its talented cast — including Twin Peaks‘ Miguel Ferrer as the hotheaded exec producer and, in the pilot, Veronica’s Closet‘s Robert Prosky as network-news honcho Boone Legarde (read: Roone Arledge) — with one-dimensional writing. Inside-the-Beltway references (President Clinton’s Renaissance Weekend retreats, which Franken has attended) and name-dropping (wonks Ben Wattenberg and Norman Ornstein) do not automatically add up to a smart show.

Especially when its lead character is so stupid. For some reason, the bitingly intelligent Franken has elected to cast himself as a henpecked doofus. In the pilot, Freundlich thinks he’s about to ascend to the show’s anchor chair after egomaniacal Pearce McKenzie (Falcon Crest‘s Robert Foxworth) unexpectedly announces his retirement. In fact, he’s just a pawn in McKenzie’s contract battle, and we’re supposed to laugh at Freundlich for not realizing what a clueless schmuck he is.