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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'North Report' Runs Low on Highlights

December 21, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The good, the bad and the ugly.

What's good? Cheer Fox Broadcasting's new late-night series for being risky and unpredictable in a medium known for timidity and predictability. Cheer "The Wilton North Report" (11:30 week nights on KTTV Channel 11) for being eclectic and living perilously.

You have the feeling that you're watching an experiment, that Quasimodo is swinging from his bell tower with a beaker of nitro and that any moment he'll fall and everything will go bloooooie! That's exciting.

What's bad? It usually does go bloooooie!

Seldom has a new series cried out more for immediate overhauling than "The Wilton North Report," the infant Fox network's successor to "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers."

"The Wilton North Report" bills itself as a magazine series, but doesn't seem to know itself what kind of magazine it is. National Lampoon? Spy? Popular Mechanics?

The creator-executive producer is Barry Sand, former producer of David Letterman's all-world late-night series. The co-hosts are Paul Robins and Phil Cowan, a couple of forgettable guys from Sacramento.

No wonder Fox delayed the start of "The Wilton North Report" at the last minute and then seemed almost to sneak it on the air Dec. 11 to avoid getting the kind of notice that new shows usually beg for.

This show is too ugly not to hide.

With some very striking exceptions, "The Wilton North Report" trivialized the trivial in its first week. It gave awful a bad name. It groaned, floundered and sank in its own quicksand. It was out of sync and out of sorts. It didn't have bad taste, it had no taste. It was a place where bad ideas were cherished and good ones came to die. It was "Star Search" and "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour" rolled into one.

Having just watched the 11 p.m. newscasts, you came to "The Wilton North Report" already laughing. You were primed and warmed up for hilarity. You sat there night after night at 11:30, anticipating, poised to laugh, lips frozen in a preparatory grin, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting. But hardly anything was funny, hardly anything worked.

You wondered if it was you, if you weren't hip enough, if you'd been living in the suburbs too long, if you'd watched MTV too little, if you were too musty for a program seeking swinging young demographics.

On second thought, the only audience that would go for this show is tucked into bed by 8 p.m.

There were some highlights.

"The Wilton North Report" seemed to finally find its rhythm on Wednesday, its fourth outing, achieving a swell mix of things bent and straight.

Greg Daniels, one of the show's writers, who looks about 16, contributed a funny video of himself boorishly coming on to a gorgeous actress. And tape of a Southern California Gas employee's actual retirement party was so absolutely sober and legitimate that it was a riot. A co-worker's parting testament: "The thing I remember about Bob was that he always ate so much catsup. Just smothered his steaks in catsup."

A short film on guileless second graders relating their dreams was at once revealing--the dreams all sounded like sci-fi or horror films--and charming. And Nancy Collins was given almost 6 minutes--an eternity for TV--to chat with author Bret Easton Ellis. Unfortunately, the serious interview was sometimes interrupted by infantile giggling from a sparse studio audience that read nonexistent double entendres into her questions. "Let's take drugs, for instance," said Collins, changing subjects. Giggles.

Take this audience--please.

Thursday, meanwhile, marked the return to the show of investigative reporter Wayne Satz, who spent years with KABC-TV's "Eyewitness News" in preparation for "The Wilton North Report."

On the Fox show, Satz celebrates the absurd with straight-faced hilarity, breaking "stories" whose intended banality are but a half-step from the ratings sweeps series found on some local stations.

His latest discovery was that "no graduates of major universities" have been sold hand trucks that cart snack foods. Earlier, he broke a story about a post office scandal so shocking that it cannot be repeated here.

Otherwise, "The Wilton North Report" has been pretty much a self-slaughtering disaster:

"Health and science editor" Jack LaLanne in his blue jump suit . . . rotten jokes about the Haiti election fiasco and men wearing women's clothes . . . poorly executed monologues . . . numbing appearances by Andrea Hart and babbling Allan Carr with Collins . . . Greg Jackson engaging in "phone sex" . . . Robins and Cowan doing unconnected radio chatter on TV. If this series were a fight, it would have been stopped by now on humanitarian grounds.

A Chino inmate who tried his hand at comedy the first night set the tone for all of "The Wilton North Report" when he said: "I guess you're wondering why I'm here." And wondering . . . and wondering . . . and wondering.

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