So much for truth in packaging.
Remember Geraldo Rivera's breathy promos for his new syndicated talk show on KTLA Channel 5, the ones that sounded like an aroused guy describing himself for a dating service?
"Hot . . . passionate . . . physical." Well, what "Geraldo!" lacks most, as it turns out, is heat, passion and physicality.
Sizzle, you anticipated. A little nuts, you expected. You even envisioned a real "physical" guy like Geraldo mud-wrestling with his guests or frisking his audience for drugs. You counted on TV journalism's junior G-man being a lot of things.
But never borrrrrrrring .
Rivera's talk show was billed as a TV enema, a sort of electronic colonic that would clean out your system. It was going to boogie and rock. It was going to ride the swooshing momentum of his ratings-rich specials into America's homes like a honking, beeping, bleeping, blinking, heretofore unseen UFO. Fasten your seat belts. "Geraldo!" was going to be "the big one," knocking you on your can, blasting right off the Richter scale. And yet. . . .
Now in its fifth week, his 9 a.m. weekday series has barely moved the wind chimes. Al Capone's empty vaults had more action.
Not that "Geraldo!" is a bad show. On the contrary, it's usually credible and only occasionally irresponsible. It's also frequently dull, however, and always derivative.
This is the human hot coal, the self-defined maverick who shuns the mainstream? Hardly. The man who accuses other talk shows of being musty and old-fashioned is producing and hosting just another talk show. Despite his vow not to copy the prototypal "Donahue" or "Oprah Winfrey," he is doing exactly that. Same format (guests on stage, host in audience), only paler.
Rivera is likable and seems to be having a good time in his new role as a talk-show host. But Phil Donahue is a better, more-informed interviewer, and Winfrey is more physical (her arms were made to hug) and more genuine.
And Rivera's Channel 5 ratings, although a bit better than those for the sitcom reruns he supplanted, have been unspectacular at best (and below his show's performance in some other markets). He's an alternative in Los Angeles, but KABC-TV's durable "A. M. Los Angeles" still owns the time slot.
"Welcome to 'Geraldo!,' " Geraldo begins each program.
His hour with Marla Hanson--the New York model whose face was slashed by attackers--was his best so far, a rocking, rip-roaring show that far overshadowed a "Donahue" episode on the same topic.
The issue was victims' rights versus defendants' rights, and by the end of the hour the audience was polarized and people were shouting at each other in a debate that was far more chaotic and emotional than illuminating. But, as they say, it was great TV, filling the screen with conflict and motion, and even some heat and passion.
Rivera's worst hour was with Mary Beth Whitehead, the New Jersey surrogate mother who lost her bitter fight for custody of the child she bore under contract with William Stern and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Stern.
The ensuing discussion of surrogate motherhood revealed Rivera's inability or unwillingness to play devil's advocate a la Donahue. The hour was so unfair and one-sided--there were no surrogate motherhood advocates or defenders to rebut Whitehead or her attorney--that "Geraldo!" left the impression that all surrogate mothers were slaves.
With 15 minutes left in the hour, Rivera announced that a scheduled pro-surrogate guest had left the studio, angry that the show was "going too much in Mary Beth's favor." About 100%, in fact. Five minutes later, Rivera promised to play devil's advocate himself, but he didn't.
Two weeks later, "Geraldo!" aired a second hour on surrogate motherhood that was balanced. But one anti-surrogate show plus one pro-and-con surrogate show still tilts the scales.
In between the Hanson and Whitehead extremes have been a spate of shows that were nice--high-tech dating, AIDS, child discipline and Tuesday's program on obesity, for example--but hardly pioneering. You had the feeling that you'd seen it all before on those other daytime talk series that Rivera finds passe.
With so many talk shows on TV--and more are coming, by the way--there's probably nothing left for "Geraldo!" to cover that hasn't already been covered in duplicate and triplicate. Rivera may think he has a lot to say, but he's saying it to a nation that's heard it all before.