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Fall 2000: "Deadline"

Back when the powers that be here at TeeVee were passing out this year's review assignments, I raised my hand for Deadline. I was an instant too late, however, and senior staffer Ben Boychuk landed it. I was deeply disappointed, although perhaps I shouldn't have been; after all, I had been looking forward to Law & Order: SUV last year, and look how that turned out. Nevertheless, I was irritated when Ben went around the office chortling and saying things like, "It's official: Dick Wolf is a hack." Accessing my encyclopedic knowledge of TV lore (embodied in the IMDb), I countered with a show from early in Wolf's career: Miami Vice. As he was passing by, Jason Snell interjected: "Michael Mann was the visionary, the genius, the guy who wanted Don Johnson in white. Mann didn't create Vice, but it was his baby."

And Michael Mann has gone on to the movies and such successes as "Heat" and "The Insider." Wolf has gone on to Law & Order and a string of failures, including the execrable L&O:SOL. So one does wonder about Wolf's personal abilities.

I waited on Ben's review. I wondered how he would dissect Deadline with his laser-like intellect. I considered how he might deconstruct the show's dialogue. How Ben might finally tear the show into little pieces and then gloat over his bloody handiwork.

Then the word came down: Deadline had flatlined. It was cancelled, to be replaced with reruns of Law & Order until further notice. There was some noise about how the remaining filmed episodes would end up on USA, but in effect, Deadline was dead.

This puts any reviewer in an odd position. You've watched the show, possibly with great suffering, in the interests of journalism and criticism. In a sense, you're duty bound to write your review. But if the show has already been cancelled, what purpose can this serve? If you heap praise upon it, that praise is hollow, for the show is no more and no one can see it. And it's not as if you can expect that a cogent review filled with superlatives will bring that show back. Similarly, if the show was awful and you say so, you run the risk of making beating a dead horse look downright constructive.

Ben seemed to choose a simpler path: Forget Deadline ever existed. Move on to bigger and better pursuits, like analyzing Ralph Nader position papers.

But I could not stand idly by while Deadline slipped beneath the waves of viewer apathy. I felt someone should say a few kind words over the body -- and further, that someone should be me. Because I liked the heck out of Deadline, and I'm going to miss it.

I think the main factor in the demise of Deadline was the marketing of it by NBC. Since Dick Wolf produces the venerable ratings winner Law & Order, and Deadline was also his, NBC figured that they could target L&O viewers and get them to load Deadline onto their viewing schedules. This was a mistake, because approaching Deadline with an L&O mindset was a bad idea. Deadline was less Law & Order: Media Division and more Murder She Wrote: The Early Years. If you came to Deadline looking for strong plotting, exploration of the byzantine structure of the American law enforcement-criminal prosecution axis, or twist courtroom endings, you came to the wrong show. No, Deadline's charms were in many ways entirely different from those of the show NBC decreed was its progenitor.

For one thing, Deadline was funny. Very funny. Law & Order has always had its funny bits -- I'm convinced there's a writer shackled in a dark basement somewhere whose only job is to come up with the witty teaser line, usually uttered by Jerry Orbach, just before the opening titles roll. (Say, about a murder victim impaled on a spike: "Well, I guess he got the point.") But L&O is clearly not a comedy. Not so Deadline, which was very nearly a sitcom in a lot of ways -- and if you weren't laughing at the intentional jokes, well, then you could laugh at the dopey situations, such as when the police left the gossip reporter alone with the murder suspect.

For another thing, Deadline was not a true ensemble show. The whole series turned on the axle of its main character, Wallace Benton, played by Oliver Platt. He was given fantastic support by the rest of the cast -- Hope Davis, Lili Taylor, Bebe Neuwirth, Tom Conti. Every actor on the set seemed to be enjoying themselves, leaping into their parts with relish and abandon; but none so much as Platt, who attacked the role of the drinking, disheveled, acerbic and sometimes bleary Benton with everything he had. His performance was fantastic and offbeat and entertaining in its every molecule. Platt perfectly personified Benton's brash way with people, sweeping into the offices of powerful men and confronting them with their errors. His seemingly woozy way of talking to witnesses belied his conversational skill; in fact, his appearance of drunkeness might have been the verbal equivalent of Jackie Chan's Drunken Boxing fighting style. And yet Benton was often actually drunk, and Platt masterfully managed to convey the difference between when Benton was filled with alcohol and when he was merely pretending to stagger.

Of course, acting is little without good dialogue, and good dialogue was one thing Deadline had in common with L&O. The characterizations were strong and interesting, with a depth rarely found on TV. Their lines were complex and used big words and everything. The actors were permitted to express their intelligence -- both intelligent actors and intelligent dialogue being scarce treats indeed.

Perhaps, though, in addition to the marketing error, the other error that sank Deadline was that, in making the characters engaging and smart, the writers and producers failed to make them entirely likeable. Platt's Benton was a lot of fun to watch, but he was also abrasive, abusive, overbearing, intimidating. Not the kind of traits that make an easy hero. Perhaps American viewers are not in the market for difficult protagonists on TV -- witness the early death of Robert Pastorelli's Cracker, or any of Dabney Coleman's vehicles (from Buffalo Bill on), or Jeremy Piven's Cupid.

Then again, there were Deadline's plots, which were fairly insipid. While it says something that I could enjoy the show despite the unfortunate story arcs, it also says something that I had to enjoy the show "despite." In the last episode aired, the writers had sunk so low as to have the killer confess to Benton, then attempt to kill him, only to -- can you believe this twist ending? -- be shot by the police who were listening on the wiretap Benton was wearing! For the first half hour, this was the most exciting and involving TV show I'd seen in a long time; then it stumbled badly, then threw itself down the stairs, and by the time the killer was confessing it was beating itself with a chair leg and trying to squeeze its head into the storm drain. I can't imagine why this creaky old stupid retread plot, one that wouldn't have fooled TV viewers in 1956, had to exist alongside lines like this one: "I visit my daddy's grave and I pray. You know what I pray to my daddy? I pray for him to give me the strength... to dig up his body and beat his head in with a shovel for leaving me like this."*

Well, it doesn't matter now. Deadline is dead. And maybe I'm the only one, but I will mourn it.

* Note added March 18, 2003: Thanks to the miracle of Deadline repeats of Bravo, I can now bring you this quote precisely: "Every year I go visit his grave and I pray on his grave. You know what I prayed last year?...I said Daddy, God give me the strength to dig you up and beat the crap out of you with this shovel for leaving me the way you did."


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