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The Complete Series
Running Time: 417 minutes
Starring: Al Franken, Miguel Ferrer, Megyn Price, Catherine Lloyd Burns, Sanaa Lathan, Ajay Naidu and Robert Foxworth
Retail Price: $39.99
Specs: 1.33:1 Full Screen, English Dolby Stereo Surround, English Closed Captions, Episode Selection, Chapter Stops (4 chapters per episode), Three-Disc Set
Released: August 17th, 2004
Debuting as a mid-season replacement in 1998 on NBC, "Lateline" was the brain child of "Saturday Night Live" alum Al Franken and John Markus (a background force on "The Cosby Show"). The show was an instant success - its Nielsen ratings were pretty decent, and less importantly to network executives (at least in some cases), received unanimous critical acclaim - this was a show people couldn't stop raving about and truly loved. While NBC opted not to put it on its fall schedule, the show did return again a year later as a mid-season replacement again. It was very slightly retooled (the cast was the same though) - and even though critics applauded its return and still thought it was a great show, the series was canceled because the ratings weren't great. The show ended up popping up on cable's Showtime network a little while after, but not for long either.
Even though "Lateline" had its fans and champions, some of you may never have heard of it so here goes: the series follows the staff and on-goings at the late night news show based in Washington D.C. entitled "Lateline" (which of course, seems pretty similar to ABC's own late night news show "Nightline"). The players on the show include Vic Karp (Miguel Ferrer) as the decision-making executive producer, booker Briana (Sanaa Lathan), segment producer Gale Ingersoll (Megyn Price), crazed intern Ragi (Ajay Naidu), the egotistical anchor Peace McKenzie (Robert Foxworth) and his high-strung, always-trying-to-please assistant Mona (Catherine Lloyd Burns). And even though Franken co-created the show, co-wrote several of the episodes and was an executive producer, on most of the episodes his role was pretty much supporting. Playing Al Freundlich, he's a correspondent for the show with his own ego to protect, a wife he always must speak to and a guy the viewers hate and even his co-workers can't stand but somehow they always put up with him.
Probably best known for being Stuart Smalley on SNL, his books and the long-running feud with Bill O'Reilly, I really believe that "Lateline" is one of Al Franken's best successes. What I think helped make "Lateline" work so well is that the writers really put the correct emphasis on the characters and put them in some really hilarious situations. There was some ground that's been covered before (workplace romance, anyone?) but at the time the show's humor was rather topical (it's obvious the book Tainted Banners was in similar vein to Primary Colors - it's just too bad that the Buddy Hackett episode is now well out of date for some really obvious reasons, and that some political figures are no longer in power). The dialogue was incredibly sharp and natural too, and the viewer was made to feel that they were really part of that newsroom putting the show together (it was important the series didn't actually focus on the in-program itself).
What was also wonderful about the series was that it nailed a lot of truths about the media and television news - the hustle and bustle of being timely with stories, breaking news, having guests, dealing with networks heads and more. In my opinion though, best of all was the arrogant Robert McKenzie character who thought he could do anything, seduce any lady, step on anyone, was the brightest, was the most talented and really believed he was God's gift to the world (and this show was years before Will Ferrell in "Anchorman"). The concept for the show may seem a little bit tired, but it was really well-put together which made it so fresh and feel like a true original.
Something cool "Lateline" had was that during the show's on-air segments (when we saw the actual program the characters were producing), there would be actual guests and not actors. The show had its fair share of famous faces as brief guests stars, some more well known than others: Ralph Nader, John Kerry (he's certainly famous now), attorney Alan Dershowitz, Joan Lunden, Dick Gephardt, "presidential loser" Michael Dukakis and even Conan O'Brien (who, with then-sidekick Andy Richter, played large parts in one of the series' best episodes). This idea the show used sort of reminded me of the show "Frasier," where actors and all sorts of famous people would lend their voices to Frasier Crane's radio program as listeners with problems (except on this show, it's a lot more direct).
Another key to the show's success was its cast - this is an example of a well, if not perfectly, cast show. Megyn Price was really phenomenal as Gale, the producer was really committed to the show and her job. Price played well off everyone, and had strong delivery to boot. Ajay Naidu was equally as good (and often underused) as intern Raji - Naidu's paranoid demeanor and how he was always dissatisfied added a lot of laughs to the show. Sanna Lathan was good too, and Catherine Lloyd Burns was quite the hoot as Mona just in how she'd do anything for Pearce. Speaking of Pearce, Robert Foxworth was phenomenal as him - capturing all the arrogance and ego (complete with tantrums and loathing to be upstaged) the character called for, all topped with the right amount of smooth charm and charisma.
Of course, how could I forget Al Franken? The guy is a veteran performer thanks to SNL and several film roles, but this was a slightly different character for him. Freundlich was a well meaning guy who just loved attention, even if he always wanted his own way and wasn't always the brightest bulb in the newsroom. Franken really underplayed the part and with much ease, which is why I thought the character was such a success. Still, the major surprise for me though was the character actor Miguel Ferrer. Mainly known for dramatic work (and being the bad guy in "Blank Check" and George Clooney's cousin), I had no idea how excellent of a comedic actor Ferrer was. The guy always gets a steady stream of work, and while I believe he's on NBC's "Crossing Jordan" currently, I think he'd be great in another sitcom (if the opportunity came along) or perhaps in film roles that call for him to be funny.
It's true that there have been plenty of sitcoms that have taken place in the epicenter of where live television is produced, but thanks to its characters and writing "Lateline" was able to stand out in front of a pretty crowded back. Even though it had a limited run, it certainly was memorable (and memorable enough to garner a release on DVD). If you love a great sitcom that is always enjoyable, funny and re-watchable, then "Lateline" is a show that you must see. And for all you long time fans, then rejoice - the show has finally hit DVD with all nineteen episodes (including a few that never even aired).
All nineteen episodes are presented in 1.33:1 full screen, just as they were shot and broadcasted on television (well, a majority of the episodes anyway). The episodes do look pretty sharp overall - they are a bit grainy at points (mainly in the scenes with lower light) but it's not terrible. The behind-the-scenes portions of the show were filmed, but there are segments made to look like live television - and those look even better. All around though, colors are bold and well-saturated, fleshtones look good and detail is nice as well. The episodes do feature some noise and some of the source prints aren't as clean as others (I noticed some scratches and blemishes on some). Still, for a pretty short-lived show the episodes look quite excellent and are better than some of you are probably hoping for.
All the episodes are given English Stereo Surround tracks (which really sound like stereo tracks). These tracks are good - there are some stereo effects when some action happens, but that isn't often. A lot of the track gets its power from the show's theme music and musical cues, and the laugh track itself is pretty boisterous. Dialogue is easy to hear too and doesn't present any problems. There's nothing disappointing with these sound tracks and the show sounds very clear and crisp overall. No optional subtitles though - just English closed captions on SOME of the episodes (that's a bit weird).
To my absolute disappointment, there's nothing. Couldn't have Paramount produced a retrospective featurette with the cast and crew, or at least get an audio commentary on somewhere here? Apparently not. Though for fans of the show, the bonus is seeing four of them which never made it to the airwaves.
"Lateline" was a great show which certainly deserved a lot more longevity, but at least it got a lot more out of its run than the average mid-season replacement. It's unfortunate this DVD set collecting the show has no extras, but at least the episodes look and sound good. If you were a fan of the show a few years ago then this set is a must have (and the price is right too). And for all of you who are not familiar with it, try to check it out if you can - it's a strong, consistently funny ensemble sitcom that is really driven by some great characters.