When I visited The Museum Of Television and Radio in New York back in October—man oh man, has DVD and the Internet laid waste to that poor institution (though I chuckle at the thought of people going to a "museum" to watch old episodes of The Jeffersons—I decided to take a trip down memory lane and watch an old episode of Sneak Previews, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's groundbreaking movie review show. Like many future cineastes, that show (and the differently titled shows that followed) was an early primer for my interest in the movies; when you live in the sticks (teh sticks being a suburb of Toledo, Ohio for me), your awareness of many films, much less the art of opinion-making, is pretty limited at a young age. In any case, it was amusing to watch them tussle over the likes of Thief, The Omen III, and a bunch of Films That Time Forgot candidates, but mostly that nostalgia session was a reminder of how diligently these Chicago-based rivals tried to bring thoughtful criticism to a medium that's often anything but. Granted, there were some commercial concessions—though I'd welcome the return of "Dog Of The Week"—but they also had a commitment towards advocating small films and plugging some real insight to go along with the requisite TV "entertainment." That dedication stayed with them when they left Sneak Previews and started a syndicated show at Buena Vista, but no one else followed the model: Not their replacements, Jeffrey Lyons and Neil Gabler (later replaced by right-wing stooge Michael Medved), not the bow-tied likes of Gene Shalit or his morning competition Joel Siegel, and certainly not the legions of freshly scrubbed broadcast critics who have followed in their wake.
Back when Siskel was hospitalized and later killed by a brain tumor, Ebert filled his empty chair with a range of interim critics from across the country—some were from other disciplines, such as The Washington Post's unctuous TV critic Tom Shales, but most were working film critics from newspaper or broadcast outlets. Over the past half-year or so, Ebert's own battle with cancer, which took a dangerous turn when a previous surgery yielded serious complications, has forced the show's producers to find guest hosts to take his place across the aisle from Richard Roeper. To their defense, coming up with new hosts for a weekly show is no easy task, especially when you're working out of Chicago and have to arrange for them to see all the screenings and (if they're inexperienced) get them accustomed to the difficult task of presenting themselves under the hot lights. Also to their defense, the only guest hosts to appear multiple times have been critics, with two strong stints each for the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips and The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who comes back for Round Three this week.
But after watching this week's episode with Harold Ramis, the affable actor-director behind comedies such as Groundhog Day and Analyze This, I can no longer hold my tongue. Before their review of For Your Consideration, the new comedy from the troupe behind Waiting For Guffman and A Mighty Wind, Ramis prefaced his remarks with the disclaimer that he knows the people involved and he thinks they're all brilliant—or something to that effect. He then goes on to give an unreservedly positive review to the film (which is easily their most problematic movie to date, but that's neither here nor there). So exactly what service does this grossly compromised point-of-view provide to viewers who don't have a stake in Ramis' friends' success? None, of course, though at least Ramis is upfront about his conflict of interest. During Ebert's long absence—which will hopefully come to an end early next year, when his rehabilitation is scheduled to end— the producers have leaned heavily on celebrities, filmmakers, and actors (Kevin Smith, John Ridley, Fred Willard, Mario Van Peebles, Jay Fucking Leno); polished but shallow commentators with broadcast experience (Zorianna Kit, Aisha Taylor); and only the occasional professional critic. In the case of celebrities, in particular, the conflicts-of-interest are so ever-present that I don't know how we can trust what they're saying: Is Jay Leno going to be honest about how much he hated X movie if its star is due to appear on The Tonight Show during a promotional tour? Probably not. If these filmmakers have worked or dined with some of the people involved in the movies they're reviewing, can they be honest? I don't think so.
Nothing against Roeper, who has grown into a solid populist (or more populist, anyway) foil for Ebert over the years, but I think TV film criticism dies with Ebert. (And again, we hope that that doesn't happen for many years to come.) There's really no interest out there in making a movie-review show that's more intelligent and more substantive than what we're used to seeing, and the relatively high standard that Ebert has set has not been duplicated by the competition or even his own show during this long absence. For the decades of integrity he's brought to the air, it seems doubtful that his legacy will endure as much on the tube as it will in print.