"Back of the Book" raises a number of possibilities, not all of them ghastly. What one would fear most from a panel discussion of popular culture is that it would be pompous and windy boob-tomb TV, like Maryland Public Television's "The Critics' Place." But the heads that put "Book" together seem to have successfully navigated that pitfall.
It helps that Susan Stamberg, of "All Things Considered," is the moderator for the program, which is getting four trial-run airings starting tonight at 10 on Channel 26. She's much more than a moderator, really, transcending the functionary duties of that role but performing them nimbly nevertheless. She keeps the show moving without making one aware that she's keeping it moving.
However, someone should tell her that no one, women included, should wear dangly earrings on closeup TV. Unless they've landed a part on "Dynasty."
As a contribution to video grouptalk, "Back of the Book" is distinguished by the purposeful, visual-minded way producer-director Christopher Sarson has approached it. There is very little illustration (not even a clip from "Cagney and Lacey," thankfully, when that show is discussed) but the shots of the five participants are kept compellingly tight, so you don't long for relief from the talking heads. "Book" is a good-looking production, and in that respect a feather for the cap of WETA, where it is taped.
Some of the commentators on the first program look too eager to project well on television -- they're thinking about it, you can tell -- but Barbara Lippert of Adweek magazine has a natural, gabby style that connects. At one point she says that advertisers are having such a hard time depicting men and women in commercials during these sexually self-conscious times that "the only ones who come out looking well are pets." Benjamin De Mott, a book reviewer, appears nicely unfazed by the presence of cameras. Best of all at this is Stamberg, whose liquid voice and lilting laugh are prize assets.
If only she were a political conservative she could be a candidate to take over the seat so unwisely vacated by Patrick Buchanan on "The McLaughlin Group." That's the program that has set the riotously entertaining new ideal where grouptalk television is concerned; "Book" can't aspire to or hope to achieve its level of captivating lunacy.
The worst thing on the "Book" premiere is a closing, gimmicked "I've-got-a-beef" segment that stands alone and falls flat. Lewis Grizzard of the Atlanta Constitution complains that women are using men's bathrooms. Watching Grizzard suffer and die makes one additionally appreciative of the brilliant way Andrew Rooney is able to make the essay form work on television (most of the time).
"Back of the Book," a candidate for weekly series status on PBS, was executive-produced by Clay Felker and Aaron Latham, those tired darlings of the Elaine's set. Latham had the bad taste to cast himself as one of the panelists on the first program. He is awful and terrible, a living symbol of all that should be avoided on future shows.