"We'd like this to be the sort of show you might hang on a nail by the kitchen door, if that were possible," anchor Roger Mudd says on the premiere of the NBC News magazine "American Almanac," at 10 tonight on Channel 4. Methinks yon Roger hath flipped his lid. People don't hang almanacs on kitchen nails anymore, but this one would probably go on a hook out back even if they did.
Soft, mushy and deleteriously dull, "Almanac" seems, in concept at least, a throwback to last summer, and to Shad Northshield's "American Parade" on CBS. At least that program was classily executed. "Almanac" tries to sustain a cheerily celebratory approach to modern Americana, but in a style that is yawningly flat. Cheerily celebratory approaches are hardly the highest form of journalism anyway, even when done well.
One always wants to give any prime-time program with a relationship to the real world the benefit of every doubt. Any hour held by the news division is an hour denied the glitzy glee merchants of Hollywood. Also, by premiering "Almanac" in the dog nights of August, NBC News executives have wisely given themselves time to improve the show before a sizable TV audience is available to see it (the show will be monthly until January, when Mudd insists it will definitely become weekly).
But even allowing for shakedown cruising, "Almanac" would seem to have a long journey ahead if it's going to compete in the prime-time arena, particularly when it will be judged in comparison with the hyperkinetics and editorial chutzpah of the CBS News magazine "West 57th," which premieres in the same time slot next week. CBS News is doing "Miami Vice" and NBC News is doing "The Waltons."
The first "Almanac" opens with a pro forma and de rigueur piece on the crew of the Enola Gay and where they are now, 40 years after they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Mudd takes pains to note that the crew members, contrary to rumors, have not gone mad or retreated into hiding, but the most interesting crew member glimpsed on the program is the flight engineer, who lives in Georgia. He would not be interviewed and appears at his front door in a bathrobe and long beard to tell the crew, "Please, all of you, go."
This man is the only thing on "American Almanac" that you end up wanting more of.
If "Enola Gay" seems a presentable "20/20" piece, what follows it on "Almanac" tonight seems nothing more than a presentable "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" piece. The subject is Bijan, a sinfully expensive clothing store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where a shirt can cost you $550, a tie $110 and a chinchilla blanket for your private jet $97,000. Big deals, big deal. The piece lacks attitude, doesn't give us enough about who are the customers of this ridiculous store, and ends up mere materialist voyeurism.
The reporter for the segment is someone named John Severson. I think he's trying to be Lloyd Dobyns. He should remember that even Lloyd Dobyns has a tough time doing that.
"Almanac's" third piece is the most embarrassing. It's "Real People" -- a poorly scripted encounter with a fat husband-and-wife trucker team whose big ol' 18-wheeler, we are told, has traveled enough miles to circle the Earth 60 times. The male half of the team gets teary on cue when discussing his father's death. The reporter says, "Mere four-wheelers, we belong to another world, another dimension." And this report belongs to the dimension known as radio. You can close your eyes and not miss a thing.
In the good old days of the NBC "Weekend" show, this piece would have been done with little or no narration, with just the subjects and their milieu speaking for themselves. "American Almanac" is a step backward even for NBC News, which means if it backs up any further, it goes right off the cliff.
Connie Chung materializes with a satisfactory piece on "designer genes," determining the sex of children in advance through a process that involves artificial insemination. Chung is nothing if not personably professional. At one point, she studiously watches sperm swim gamely to the bottom of a test tube. Mudd returns for an intriguing report about how the Earth's weather is changing. Bovine flatulence, Mudd learns, is a factor in this.
The last thing on the show is an illustrated reminiscence by Roy Blount Jr., who proves he can no more smoothly make the transition from print essayist to television essayist than Art Buchwald did on "American Parade." His ode to the joys of drinking cold soda pop as a boy include dramatizations and one very nifty dissolve. The second neatest visual touch on the show is a dissolve from the pilot of the Enola Gay waving out the cockpit window in 1985 to a newsreel of the same man waving from the same plane in 1945.
In a special screening for NBC affiliates last week, Mudd told them, "We think we have found a hole in American commercial television journalism, and the hole is that much of America that is portrayed on the daily broadcasts, the daily programs, is an America in agitation, in confrontation, in crisis, and most of us . . . realize that America is not quite that way all the time. We'll try to fill that hole, and we'll try to report that part of the country and those people who do not make it in daily journalism."
It sounds like a mandate to cover the planes that don't crash. Is the piece on Bijan supposed to qualify as fresh new exposure for the average American? Good grief, Bijan's rug must be all but worn thin from all the "P.M. Magazine" crews that have traipsed into the shop. The story is not only old, but stale.
Newness is not always a virtue, of course -- though you do expect journalism of any kind to answer the age-old question "What's new?" A scarcity of flashy production techniques is not the problem with "Almanac." Mudd sits on a Washington set that is quaint and sterile at the same time (there seems to be a large, star-spangled shower curtain on the right), but no show was ever made or unmade by its set. Mind set may instead be the issue here -- or, more accurately, a lack of one.