MOB MEETS THE GODFATHER OF EXPLOITATION TV

Sons of Geraldoface.

One wonders about the legacy of Geraldo Rivera, whether, inspired by his booming ratings, tomorrow's TV's techniks will model themselves after America's Video Ranger and take to the streets and back alleys with their live minicams in quest of news chic.

Everything on TV would be presented as it was happening. There would be, then, no past or future, no memory or distant horizons, only the present, immediate and instantaneous and visceral, the Headrooming of America driven to its full, electronic, grim conclusion.

Actually, Rivera's specials mostly give the appearance of being live without being very live at all: a stagy shot here and there for atmosphere. Video Ranger himself posturing in front of a studio audience in New York.

And there's not even that for viewers outside the Eastern time zone. They can only guess at how thrilling it must have been Monday seeing Times Square on live TV instead of one, two or three hours later on videotape. It loses so much between 5 and 6 p.m.

Give him credit. Geraldo does put on a good show.

First came "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults," "American Vice: The Doping of a Nation" and "Innocence Lost: The Erosion of American Childhood." And then on KTLA Monday night came Rivera's latest two hours, "Sons of Scarface: The New Mafia."

As always, Rivera played himself magnificently, raw to the bone, capturing the essence and soul of himself--physical, passionate, surging, involved, hip and quite bananas--as no other actor could do. He was brilliant, perfect casting, a mushroom cloud of self-parody. You could sense the saliva running through his veins. He'll surely continue playing himself until he finds a better and more lucrative role, which isn't likely.

"Hey, it's too much," he said at one point, sounding like Bill Murray. With Geraldo Rivera, though, "too much" is a foreign concept.

But not exploitation. As he learned in the dusty, smoky rubble of Al Capone's vaults in April, 1986, gangsters sell. Even their empty vaults sell. As someone pointed out the other day, there aren't many movies or TV shows made about crooked accountants.

At least, however, Monday's program did chronicle the multi-ethnic expansion of organized crime and the so-called "new Mafias" of Asians and Latinos. And it laid out, albeit melodramatically, the historical underpinnings of international crime and the escalating presence of "today's mob" in all areas of society. Old news, but important news.

"These guys are scumballs, ladies and gentlemen," Rivera growled in front of his studio audience. "There's no glamour in today's mob."

And no glamour in giving America the scoop on "today's mob." But what was Geraldo to do? Let these wise guys push him around? Walk over him, Geraldo ? Fat chance.

There was, for example, his side-splitting exchange with crime figure Matthew Traynor, speaking by satellite from jail, and reputed Mafia boss John Gotti's attorney, Bruce Cutler, who was in the studio.

Rivera tried unsuccessfully to get Traynor to repeat about Gotti on camera what Traynor previously had told him about Gotti. Traynor sweated but wouldn't budge. Rivera tried unsuccessfully to get Cutler to say that Gotti knew Traynor. Cutler wouldn't budge. Then Rivera tried unsuccessfully to get Cutler to acknowledge the existence of a Mafia. He wouldn't budge.

The grilling went comically on and on, with Rivera pacing like a prosecutor in front of the audience, and Cutler seated on a stage in front of a big screen from which Traynor was speaking.

It was great TV, no information, lots of confrontation. At one point you half expected Rivera to put a 900 number on the screen and ask viewers to vote yes or no on the existence of a Mafia.

There's no subject--even one as awesome as organized crime--that Rivera can't trivialize with his tactics. It's an overmatch. His hysterical ranting about "the greedy, grasping hands" of "the mob" extended his own caricature to that of his topic.

When someone showboats like this, credibility is a casualty. How far will he go to achieve dramatic effect? Is the editing of the taped interviews honest? Is the narration honest? Is he honest?

An intuitive showman, Rivera knows the right buttons to push. It's impossible to convey the viciousness of organized crime without showing gore. But that much gore? The program may have piled up as many bodies--many of them displayed in bloody, gruesome, twisted close-ups--as ratings points.

"A lot of these guys get it in a restaurant," Rivera said. And a lot of what they got seemed to have been shoveled into the program gratuitously for shock purposes, perhaps another example of regular TV further loosening its violence standards to meet the competition from cable.

But what you really wanted to see from Video Ranger, you got: those vintage Junior G-man stakeouts, ambushings and reporter-glorifying confrontations.

There he was--sitting, walking, stalking, talking, snooping.

He swept through a numbers joint like a campaigning politician. "Geraldo Rivera. How are you? Hi, everybody. Hi, how are you? Nice to see you."

He tried to question Gotti on the street--"Tell him it's Geraldo Rivera"--but was turned away by a bodyguard.

He tried another reputed mobster. "Is Ritchie here? Can you tell him Geraldo Rivera is here?" Again, no luck.

Like, what was wrong with these guys, anyway? If they wouldn't talk to Geraldo, the least they could do was ask him for his autograph.

Till next time. Go on, get outta here. Hey, it's too much.

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