- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2001

A reporter beseeches a death row prisoner to allow his execution to be shown on her upstart cable news network.
"I dont know if you can make your peace with God, Mr. Carmichael, but you can make it with the camera," Alice Allenby of World News Service breathily advises the doomed man in ABCs new drama "The Beast."
Allenby (Elizabeth Wheeler) isnt just after a scoop in her first TV assignment. The activist-reporter wants to show death-penalty supporters "the horror of it" through a live execution.
"The Beast," for its part, seeks to gnaw at journalism that proclaims cameras always belong and always tell the truth and at a society that laps up even the most extreme Grand Guignol reporting.
The series (debuting 10 p.m. June 13) offers a glossy package of pretty reporters, clever sets and a nifty trick of turning the cameras not only on the stories, but on those who sell them oops, tell them on WNS.
The result is a drama that sometimes skids into the silly but carries us along with a cockeyed intensity. Its most serious offense may be that it has too much on its mind for summer viewing.
Kario Salem, the Emmy-winning writer of "Don King: Only in America," created "The Beast," and admirers of that HBO film will recognize Mr. Salems audacious touch. Director Mimi Leder ("ER," "Deep Impact"), a co-executive producer, brings a deft sophistication.
Frank Langella, Jason Gedrick, Peter Riegert and Harriet Sansom Harris are part of the ensemble cast.
WNS, a 24-hour news operation nicknamed "the beast" for its insatiable appetite for stories, is owned by a wealthy maverick (Mr. Langella) unfettered by corporate ties or personal inhibitions.
A manipulator who could have studied at the knee of Miles Drentell of "Thirtysomething" and "Once and Again," Jackson Burns claims he seeks "absolution" for a reviled press. At first sniff, he seems like the kind of news entrepreneur who could give media conglomerates a good name.
"Heres the pitch," he tells Allenby in luring her from print journalism to WNS. "People distrust the media. Its no big secret. But I think they hate us. … Were just maggots feeding off the flesh of a story.
"I want them to see us struggle with the truth, the way they struggle with the truth," he tells her, explaining why everything that occurs in the newsroom is fodder for WNS and its Internet site.
This naturally brings to mind the adage about sausages enjoy them, but dont watch them being made. The messiness of the WNS approach isnt limited to behind the scenes, however.
Riding the beast are a pack of hard-driving, egotistical, power-addicted (and some pill-addicted) journalists willing to go over the edge for the common good and their careers.
One WNS interviewer makes an obscene gesture on camera, just one facet of his editorializing; another allows herself to be fondled for a story.
WNS editor Ted Fisher (Mr. Riegert) is the peevish voice of reason, debating with his colleagues about the wisdom of putting an electrocution on the air.
"Its real. Its newsworthy," swaggering WNS reporter Reese McFadden (Mr. Gedrick) contends.
"An execution is not an everyday sort of real. Its an extreme reality," Fisher retorts. "Its extreme reality. Theres no frame of reference. Once you put something like this on television, its just TV."
Alice (as in Wonderland) Allenby acts as the viewers guide through the morass, her lovely eyes as wide as saucers or camera lenses as she is seduced by the electronic miracle and the power of it all.
The series is not intended as a double-barreled blast at the media, Miss Leder says.
"Its not really a news show, although its set in a news station. Its really a show about our popular culture," the director says. "To me, its like a conversation with our popular culture."
She admits to mixed feelings about journalists.
"I do respect a lot of the press who report honestly and smartly about what they see and feel and interpret but I also think a lot of the press is not interested in the truth and just in the package the thrills, the dirt, the ugliness."
Are the TV journalists in her show at all heroic? "Absolutely," she says. Mr. Gedrick sees the reporter he plays that way, and possibly as a bellwether.
"My character takes a brash approach, atypical in terms of what the mainstream [media] is interested in," he says, "but how many things over the course of the last 10 years are mainstream that were once considered taboo?"


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