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Television / THE NEW SEASON

Two Jokers, One Ace

'Deadline' Traces a Sleuthing Reporter

October 02, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

After achieving his greatest success with "Law & Order," a wonderfully smart and thoughtful series nourished by challenging plots, producer Dick Wolf has himself a true character-driven drama in his latest project for prime time.

It's "Deadline," whose formidable protagonist is an eccentric, rule-twisting journalist provocateur, a bow-tied pin cushion in three-piece suits and silk scarves played persuasively by magnetic Oliver Platt.

Setting aside his inflated paycheck, Pulitzer Prize-winning Wallace Benton is the kind of hard-boiled character Ben Hecht might have created generations ago. He's a hands-on newspaper big shot who's as eye-catching as the screaming banner headlines in the New York Ledger, the tabloid (a ringer for the New York Post) for which he writes a muckraking column that earns him $300,000 a year and easy living in a spacious city residence to die for.

Benton also moonlights as a college teacher who deploys his graduate students like investigators, for essentially he's a detective and "Deadline" a series less about newspapering than about crime.

Observe the rumpled elegance, the nest of hair that birds could live in, the chicanery of a shrewd manipulator who sees ethics as typos and believes in doing to others what he would not want done to himself. "You lie with such incredible ease," his assistant tells him.

Deeply flawed, yes. But this guy is fun, and all you need to enjoy him and this series is a little suspension of disbelief. Well, perhaps more than a little.

Although arrogant, Benton is not beyond acknowledging his fallibility. Tonight he and his bright young disciples strip back layers of untruth in one of his most famous columns that may have sent two innocent men to death row. And now the clock for them is ticking.

The story's undertones of racism and hostility are especially interesting. And as always with Wolf, you get New York and its unique ambience. As for the show's reality bar, though, Benton makes this plot U-turn far too swiftly to believe. Nor is it remotely credible that the cops would let him do the interrogating.

On the other hand, Platt is charmingly on point as Benton. It helps, too, that he is operating with an A-list of supporting actors. Lili Taylor plays a gossip columnist, Hope Davis his estranged snot of a wife, Tom Conti his unscrupulous publisher and Bebe Neuwirth his tough, sexy managing editor, whose presence here is often electrifying.

If a bit fanciful. In Episode 2, she sleeps and colludes with a city council candidate whose murky past she knows Benton is investigating, an epic breach of ethics that would get her fired from just about every paper in the land.

Except the Ledger. Which isn't real. So enjoy.

*

* "Deadline" premieres at 9 tonight on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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