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Columns
'The Beast' takes a jaundiced look at news

Sunday, June 10, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

And you think TV news is bad now.

ABC's new drama series "The Beast" posits a future (about one minute from now) when an all-news cable network doesn't just report the news, it creates it.

World News Service (WNS) is the brainchild of media mogul Jackson Burns (Frank Langella) whose 24-hour cable news channel shows not only anchors and reporters delivering the news, but goes behind the scenes to show the meetings where decisions are made about what should air and why. Cameras are everywhere inside the WNS Los Angeles headquarters, and they're all controlled by the mysterious Harry (Gary Werntz), who hides in a closet, sending out feeds to the WNS Web site. It's all very Big Brotherish.

Why is WNS nicknamed "the beast"?

"Because it's always hungry" for news, explains an acerbic staffer.

 
 
TV REVIEW

"The Beast"

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.

Starring: Frank Langella, Jason Gedrick, Elizabeth Mitchell.

   
 

"The Beast" raises some interesting ethical questions about journalism, but the answers the characters come up with are frighteningly wrong and out of touch with the mainstream. Leather jacket-wearing, swaggering anchor Reese McFadden (Jason Gedrick) sums up the show's attitude with this line of dialogue: "I'm pro-everything, I'm a newsman. I like news, that means I'm an anarchist."

We're supposed to be anarchists? I must have missed that class in journalism school.

Reese also passes judgment on the people he reports on, calling a suspected bomber a "psychologically damaged dirtbag." Objectivity, we hardly knew ye.

Wednesday's premiere is told from the vantage point of Alice Allenby (Elizabeth Mitchell), an acclaimed TV news writer/producer who comes from the "old school" of journalism, the kind that encourages impartiality. But Alice is surprisingly quick to forsake any such decorum, telling a man on death row she thinks he's a monster before encouraging him to ask that his death be televised.

It's timely given the rescheduled execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, which is surely why ABC scheduled the show's premiere for this week. But the network knows this dark, insane series won't catch on with American viewers who, by and large, don't hanker for anarchy.

Next week's episode fills in the blanks about Bobby James (Mark Pellegrino), the accused bomber who's all over WNS's newscasts. At the end of the premiere episode he shows up at WNS in yuppie disguise and, using an alias, gets hired next week as an intern. The WNS news team is so consumed with pontificating and posing that they fail to notice the bombing suspect is the guy pushing around the mail cart.

All-seeing Harry wises up in the June 27 telecast, but decides that, as a journalist, he shouldn't interfere. Did I mention how profoundly amoral these characters are?

Created and executive produced by Kario Salem ("Don King: Only in America," "The Rat Pack"), journalism as practiced in "The Beast" is the delusion of a Hollywood writer. Let's hope it stays that way. As television drama, it's pretty ponderous stuff. As journalism, it's thought-provoking, but ultimately flawed.

Jackson Burns tells Alice he has cameras trained on behind-the-scenes meetings because he wants viewers at home to "see us struggle with the truth as they struggle with the truth. ... I'm very interested in process here."

I'm interested in process, too, but professionalism and responsibility need to be cornerstones of the process. At WNS they are not.

Viewers may recognize Mitchell from her recurring role on "ER" this season as the love interest of Dr. Kerry Weaver. She looks perpetually spooked and ready to dissolve into tears, which she does before the end of Wednesday's episode.

Langella gives Jackson an appropriately steely, power-mad gaze that's as inscrutable as it is scary. There's got to be more to him, but it's only hinted at in early episodes.

It's too bad "The Beast" is so out of touch with reality. I still believe a TV newsroom drama can work in prime time. CBS's "WIOU" (1990-1991) and UPN's "Live Shot" (1995-1996) were more realistic efforts, but they failed to catch on with viewers. TNT recently canceled its newsroom-set series, "Breaking News," before it even premiered. There's little doubt a through-the-looking-glass drama such as "The Beast" will suffer the same fate.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Thursday, June 07, 2001

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