Leonard Burdette is a specious, fatuous dunderhead. He's a one-man Me Decade, self-obsessed and terminally myopic. In what field can a guy like this find happiness? Why, in television, of course.
Although Leonard is a fictional character, a lot of what he says and does rings gruesomely true in Lip Service, a one-hour Home Box Office play premiering on HBO tonight at 11 p.m. Griffin Dunne stars as Leonard and Paul Dooley plays Gil Hutchinson, whose daily news show "Sunny Side Up," on WBX-TV, is in ratings trouble until Leonard comes stumbling along.The film, written by Harvey Korder and directed by W.H. Macy, is a variation on "All About Eve." It's "All About Len." But Burdette isn't really a devious, Machiavellian schemer. He's just a hustling little schlemiel who knows how to exploit his commanding lack of taste. And where it will be most welcome.
"He just looks like a lot of guys," says a producer studying Len's audition tape. "That could be good," a station executive says.
Gil is a veteran journalist who delivers sober, thoughtful commentaries on the homeless and nuclear disarmament. Len is the world's foremost authority on one thing: himself. "I'm really into people," he says. "I'm very committed to my gut," he observes. Sometimes he'll ask penetrating questions: "Am I coming on too strong?" And, "Would you say there's something about me that is naturally attractive?"
Unfortunately, there is. Len comes across well on television. He's the sort of bland, anonymous jerk who can thrive on the tube. So although he is added to Gil's morning show as a second banana, we know it won't be long before he takes over. Gil is going the way of all dinosaurs, and he knows it.
At first, he tries to ignore Len, as if he were a pesky bug, but eventually, bolstered by Scotch in a bar, he is able to tell the fellow what he thinks of him: "You press yourself. You respect no boundaries. You promote shallowness as a virtue, and I don't like you."
While Len is meant to be irritating, he becomes a little too irritating in the film. The whole film gets to be irritating, because it's so dependent on conversations in which Len keeps missing, or ducking, the point.
But as a satire of a mentality all too common in the TV business, "Lip Service" hits some welcome bullseyes. The tone is not as corrosive as in Paddy Chayefsky's movie "Network," but it is gutsier than the James L. Brooks film "Broadcast News," soon to make its debut on cable.
Brooks spent so long researching his film and living among the men and women of network journalism that he became, perhaps, too understanding. He forgave them too many of their trespasses. As a result, his film was superb as a romantic comedy but not very devastating as media criticism.
Several things about "Lip Service" are inaccurate. First off, most shows like "Sunny Side Up" in local markets have a man-woman team as hosts, not two men. In one scene, Gil says he took the bus to work, not a likely course even for someone who eschews celebrity and glamor.
In the play, Gil has been at the station ten years and insists he's never been, or wanted to be, famous. The script would have made more sense if Gil were an ex-network man eliminated during a cost-cutting purge and sentenced to local markets for the remainder of his career. It's happened plenty of times.
But despite the limitations, "Lip Service" has bite to match its bark. "Walter the Weather Moose," a goof who does the weather reports wearing antlers, seems not that much of an exaggeration.
The icy little meetings among the production staff, with people carefully parceling out unfinished sentences, evokes the nervously noncommittal nature of such rituals.
Len succeeds not because he chooses style over substance, but because the whole idea of substance is totally alien to him. It is a concept he cannot grasp. How his hair looks is a concept he can grasp.
As I watched Dunne's shrewd, antic performance, I kept trying to think of the person in television he most reminded me of. And then I remembered. He reminded me of everybody in television. Well, maybe not quite-but more than enough.
After Len tries to entertain Gil with grisly news footage of tragedies, and Gil flees in horror, Len shouts after him, "Come on, it's only television!" That's just the way too many people who work in television think.