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One Thumb Up, Way Up

It's not particularly fashionable to own up to loving a show as far from the cutting edge as Siskel & Ebert. But I've never been much of a fashion plate, as anyone who knows me can attest.

Given the death of Gene Siskel this Saturday at age 53, I think it's past time that I give a little attention to a show that I've watched regularly for half my life.

The bulk of the Vidiots are people who are in the business of creating "valuable editorial content" -- or in catch phrase terms, News You Can Use. And while I toil away every day thinking about weighty issues such as buying the right hard drive or choosing the best HTML editing software, I've come to realize just how little of that kind of information comes out of television on a regular basis. Take away all the news shows and newsmagazines (there goes one-third of NBC's prime time schedule!), and there's precious little information left on the tube.

But Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's various TV series, while not covering weighty topics, have been a dependable source of consumer information for years. Since the late '70s, these two unlikely TV stars have mixed the movie clip -- the lifeblood of every lousy Entertainment Tonight-style tabloid news show in existence -- with fearless film criticism.

Think about it. Siskel and Ebert built a hugely successful television series (not to mention successful side businesses, from TV appearances to magazine columns to books) around unvarnished criticism of movies. Saying mean things about other media products is not something you see on television in this synergistic world we live in. (In other words, don't expect to see the TeeVee TV Edition coming soon to basic cable.) Most of what we get on television these days is hype -- and if something's so awful that it's not worth hyping, it's ignored more often than not.

True, Siskel and Ebert toned down their negative schtick a little after their days on noncommercial PBS -- on Sneak Previews they actually had a mascot, Aroma the Educated Skunk, which presented a "stinker of the week" award. But they never stopped taking awful movies to task, even ones made by Disney, the distributor of Siskel & Ebert.

As several writers have pointed out in the days following Siskel's death, the pair have always had their harsh critics -- and I mean critics literally. As in other jealous critics who slapped Siskel and Ebert with the ugly label lowbrow.

See, the beauty of Siskel and Ebert's work is that they attracted a large, faithful throng of viewers, who tracked their syndicated series down at oddball times on weekends, just to watch a couple of guys sitting in movie theater chairs talking about movies. They were more accessible, personable, and fun to watch than any effete New Yorker film critic could ever hope to be. They were stars, despite the talking-head nature of their format.

Another thing I always appreciated about Siskel & Ebert is that the two critics didn't dumb themselves down to reach that audience. Sure, the "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" scale may seem lowbrow. But not only was it a brilliant gimmick, it was the perfect way to answer one simple question: Should I go see this movie?

If you wanted the actual details about the movie, all you had to do was listen to their mini-reviews. Of course both critics' reviews were truncated by the sheer time constraints of television, but that never stopped them from having intelligent debate on the merits of particular films. In addition to reviewing the mass-market releases, they also spent a good deal of time highlighting independent films, documentaries, and foreign films. Lowbrow my ass.

From what I've read) to this point, it seems that the show currently titled Siskel & Ebert will go on. Unfortunately, it'll never be the same. In print, Roger Ebert is one of my favorite writers. But on TV, so much of the strength of Siskel & Ebert was the interplay between Gene and Roger. Their connection was so solid, David Letterman used it to endless comedic effect on his show, including a classic segment in which Dave led Gene and Roger through the wilds of suburban New Jersey.

It's hard to write about the death of a famous person, being someone who never even met the person. His wife, children, and friends will no doubt grieve for a long time. The Web is littered with excellent obituaries for Gene Siskel -- and there's nothing I can say about his life that the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, and Aaron Barnhart haven't said so much better.

So I'll end with this thought. David Letterman always joked that the only reason his set had two guest chairs was so that there would be places for both Siskel and Ebert. So every now and then, when you see that empty Late Show chair, remember Gene Siskel -- one half of a classic pair that'll never pass this way again.


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