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Not Just Another Sitcom


"Good show tonight--54 dead!"

--"The Newsroom"

Somewhere in a Toronto high-rise, the tenaciously expedient, morally corrupt news director at a large television station is wrapping up his daily editorial meeting.

"Two Canadian golfers were hit by lightning in Florida."

"Did they die?"

"Yes, they did."

"Good. That's our lead!"

Affirmation that creativity is not dead arrives tonight in "The Newsroom," easily the funniest, freshest, most original sitcom to air here this season. Unlike most U.S. sitcoms, which feel obligated to immediately assault viewers with bells, whistles and sweetened guffaws, this laugh-trackless Canadian one evolves with deceptive quiet and slowness at the outset. But it's hugely rewarding and viewer-friendly, the best way to watch it being to patiently let it wash over you and then wait for the drug to kick in.

There's no fatter target for ridicule than TV news. Nor any more popular, unfortunately, with heavy-handed farceurs. Premiering here on KCET-TV Channel 28 after running elsewhere on the PBS system, "The Newsroom" is as seductively droll and masterfully minimalist as"Lateline," the 4-week-old NBC comedy about a late-night network news program, is klutzy and noisily low-burlesque.

The cunning, deadpan satire of "This Is Spinal Tap" is analogous here. As is that of "Tanner '88," an HBO series that mocked the presidential election season of a decade ago.

But the TV series most like "The Newsroom" is HBO's outgoing, stratospheric "The Larry Sanders Show." Garry Shandling's merciless parody of the cynicism and narcissism of the Leno/Letterman talk-show scene seems to have partially inspired this devastating Canadian sendup of local TV news, created, produced, directed, written and starred in by Ken Finkleman. The man's an animal.

Shandling's fearful, neurotic, hypocritical, self-serving talk-show host has a counterpart in Finkleman's paranoiac, insecure, multifaced, utterly shameless news director, George Findlay, who has his own eye for the nubile. And there is much of Larry Sanders' self-absorbed, misbehaving sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), in George's subtlety inane, clueless 6 p.m. anchor Jim Walcott (Peter Keleghan), whose attempts to fix his problems inevitably sink him even deeper into quicksand.

"The Newsroom" also shares with "The Larry Sanders Show" a distinct dark side and an ability to impale without resorting to shrill caricatures or cheap stereotypes. Its hand-held cameras roam this Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news universe like a silent voyeur. It communicates with gestures, shrugs and nuances. And choosing to underplay, it expresses the outrageous in a chatty, stony, straight-faced manner that makes it all the funnier. Jim is very much a Ted Baxter, for example, but in a monotone. When a Toronto-admiring white tourist from Detroit tells him, "You don't have our colored problem," Jim replies, "Yes, but you're not having our horrible winters."


Yet "The Newsroom" is no mere echo of another show. It has its own sensibility, much of which is said to be distinctly Canadian. In any case, its comedic frames of reference are universal, and Finkleman has a great eye for the absurd.

The opening plot finds George and his producer toadies mulling the headline for their likely lead story about a train plunging into a Congo river ("Perhaps one Canadian may have been eaten by flesh-eating fish!"), before he begins interviewing female research-assistant applicants. Will he hire the blond ski bunny or the more qualified black lesbian?

Despite his show's popularity, Finkleman made only 13 episodes of "The Newsroom," of which Channel 28 is running two back-to-back each Friday, except for the last week's single hourlong episode.

The second of tonight's two episodes has Jim facing two crises: his inability to perform in the sack and management's insistence that he have a female co-anchor. Rejecting a black whose intelligence they fear would intimidate both Jim and his audience, the bosses instead hire a slick, ravishing blond from a smaller market, or as Jim calls her: "That little piece of white Edmonton trash." What easily could be a stock, predictable script about a star anchor's bruised ego, though, instead becomes a very funny half hour that is executed with delicious irony.

George's own insecurities explode in a coming episode that finds him panicking when his couch inexplicably disappears from his office, a sure sign that he's on the way out. His encounter with corporate bureaucracy is memorable, and the episode ends with some hilarious business between George and an actual critic from a Toronto newspaper.

Finkleman may have saved the brightest for last. His hourlong finale is a true side-splitter that finds Jim jobless after the collapse of the CBC, and running for public office as a liberal. The image-driven George manages his campaign, paying Jim's former wife to accompany him on the stump and give him regular sex, and insisting he heed the polls and flip-flop on abortion.

This episode ends the series on a note so appealingly bizarre and exotic--the last shot of Jim is simply stunning--that you find yourself wishing that Finkleman had not quit after 13.


* "The Newsroom" premieres at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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