Since leaving the "Today" show early this year, Jane Pauley has been riding a crest of goodwill and public adoration. Tonight, the wave crashes against the show. Pauley makes a redounding belly-flop with "Real Life," the first of five NBC News specials she'll anchor this summer.
The hour, at 10 on Channel 4, is a lighthearted and lightheaded look at we, ourselves and us, on the grounds that nothing fascinates shortsighted viewers half so much. "Real Life" may be a news division product, but it's not real news. It's You News, the kind that is designed pretty much to reinforce what a person already knows.
Network news divisions continue to back away from the mandate to inform and enlighten so that they can concentrate on the soothing stroke and the friendly mollycoddle. They're helping us cocoon.
Thus Pauley introduces a monumentally boring piece about overworked couples by telling viewers, "In their stories, you may see a lot of yourself." Is that what we turn on our TV sets to see -- a lot of ourselves? We can see a lot of ourselves any time we want.
One sees a lot of Jane Pauley on this show too. As host, she is draped on a bench in front of more drapes and manages to seem graciously and pleasantly overbearing -- like a well-meaning phone caller who doesn't know when to hang up.
Her questions to the overworked couples, during the interview segments, are perhaps meant to come off as down-to-earth stuff, but they often sound fatuous: "Are you ever tired?" "Is your life out of control?" "Do you feel guilty?" The overworked people are so happy to be on camera that they scarcely register even a sigh of complaint.
There's little or nothing in this segment about the changes in the American economy that have brought about this era of two-job couples, that have made two incomes a necessity for growing numbers of families struggling to survive. If you get into economics, the reasoning must go, viewers will tune out.
For the second segment of the show, correspondent Keith Morrison backs into a report on a recent consumer electronics convention by pretending it's about the problems people have programming their VCRs. During the sequence on timed recordings made by home viewers, a brief shot of Dan Rather pops up. It's startling to see him in these surroundings.
Pauley handles the third piece, the only good one on the show. It's the heartbreaking story of a 25-year-old Annapolis woman, adopted at birth, who set out to find her real mother. Once a charismatic beauty who dreamed of a career in show business, the mother fell victim to schizophrenia and ended up homeless on the streets of New York. Her older brother talks tearfully of the circumstances that robbed her not only of her dreams but of her identity.
"I have a new sense of confidence in who I am," says the daughter at the end of the quest. It's an attempt to contrive a happy ending that doesn't fit. The story is also outfitted with background music from Hollywood to hype its emotional content.
Finally there's Boyd Matson, not so much a reporter as a cavorter. He cavorts, like the zany cutups of local news, the ones who try to make themselves part of the story. Matson visits offbeat roadside stops throughout America and bemoans the homogenization of the nation. Unfortunately, it is a blatantly homogenized piece.
To close the show, Pauley tells us with an "oh wow" grin that "every hour in the United States, people eat three acres of pizza," one of the innumerable meaningless statistics doled out. When it isn't just being fiendishly superficial, the show is imitating the bar graphs in USA Today.
Perhaps executive producer David Browning is to be congratulated for rising to a challenge. Pauley went into this show looking like nothing could tarnish her golden glow. After just an hour of "Real Life," she's already beginning to look a little green around the gills.