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Lateline: The Complete Series

Al Franken's transition from sketch comic to political demagogue slowly played itself out during the 1990s, as the partisan comedian bounced back and forth between projects like the Saturday Night Live-inspired movie Stuart Saves His Family (1995) and his best-selling book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. During the 1998-1999 television season, Franken may have hit his smoothest balance between competing muses with the uneven but amusing sitcom Lateline. The series began as a late-season replacement in the spring of 1998 on NBC and, after poor ratings halted its network run, was picked up by the cable network Showtime, which ran all but four of the show's remaining episodes. Co-creator Franken also co-stars in this ensemble send-up of late night news shows as Al Freundlich, an industrious but unpopular reporter on the staff of a Nightline-ish program anchored by the arrogant, womanizing Pearce McKenzie (Robert Foxworth). A majority of Lateline's plotting, however, focuses on producer Gale Ingersoll (Megyn Price) and executive producer Vic Karp (Miguel Ferrer), who are both tasked with juggling staff egos and filling a half-hour of airtime five nights a week with hard-hitting news content. Lateline, like most young shows, struggles in its early episodes to find its rhythm and, at its worst, suffers from a failure of imagination on the part of its creators. Where Franken's style of humor is best served dry and unflinching, Lateline opts instead for the broad and sentimental comedy typical of family-oriented comedies, and each episode features several awkward moments during which one pines for the laugh-trackless, underselling presentation of "The Larry Sanders Show" or "Sportsnight." Even still, Lateline eventually chalks up enough pleasant laughs in the midst of its fairly routine formulas to persuade one to overlook the debt it owes to the sublime 1987 film Broadcast News (Franken's Freundlich is almost indistinguishable from Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman, and the series' best laughs trade on very similar character flaws). Lateline created some buzz with a distinguished roster of cameo appearances by notable politicians and journalists, but this gimmick results mostly in a chain of fatally wounded punchlines delivered by amateur thespians. Only G. Gordon Liddy, who gamely lampoons his persona in a few episodes, looks like turning pro (although Sen. John Kerry, who delivers the series' final line, is also unusually charming in his few seconds on screen), and the other weak performances fare poorly against the excellent principals. Price is terrific as Ingersoll, looking like a natural TV star, and Ferrer is believable as a Don Hewitt-with-a-heart-of-gold mastermind. Franken is good, too, playing to type, and Ajay Naidu (best known as Samir from the cult fave Office Space) features in many memorable gags as the precocious intern, Raji. Wisely, the show treads its political milieu with a careful sense of satire, and Air America Radio Network fans expecting Franken's ideology to dominate may be disappointed in the show's distinct lack of pointed humor, the little of which exists is mostly aimed at the media, not at conservatives. Still, political junkies may enjoy watching the likes of Pat Schroeder, William F. Buckley Jr., Martin Sheen, Rob Reiner, Conan O'Brien, Joan Lunden, etc., poking silly fun at themselves, but few will be sorely disappointed when last episode rolls credits. This three-disc set from Paramount features all 19 episodes of Lateline in 1.33:1 full frame with 2.0 Dolby Surround audio. Three keep-cases with a paperboard sleeve.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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