Wow is TV personality Len Burdette's favorite word. He says it a lot. It shows his enthusiasm, and enthusiasm's something he has plenty of--which gets him his new job, co-hosting "Sunny Side Up," a local morning show. Also in his favor is a complete lack of feeling, judgment, taste, morality and soul.
Wow is the word too for "Lip Service," the terrific one-hour film that debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Ever "bright-tailed and bushy-eyed," as he so charmingly and peppily puts it to his viewers, Burdette (Griffin Dunne) can't really relate to people, no matter how much he keeps feigning interest and love, but he does have one sure-fire knack--for coming up with "eye-openers," any kind of goofy gimmick or "funny" feature or superficial interview that will get his sleepy-eyed audience going in the morning.
His reluctant partner couldn't be more different. Gil Hutchinson (Paul Dooley) is from the old school--a quiet, slow (and getting slower) veteran newscaster whose specialty is reading news about the latest zone ordinance and coming up with dull commentaries. He worships Edward R. Murrow but once burned his fingers and knocked over a microphone trying to imitate him.
Sort of a mini-"Broadcast News" with far less romance, far more quirks and an even deadlier aim for the medium's jugular, "Lip Service" probably owes much of its uniquely pointed and irreverent quality to the fact that the people behind it come from the theater.
"Lip Service" is the first television production from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet and co-executive producer Mike Hausman, who also made the film "House of Games" together.
It's the first film of any kind directed by theatrical director W. H. Macy and written by his frequent collaborator, playwright Howard Korder. Their best-known previous joint effort was the highly acclaimed Lincoln Center Theatre production of Korder's "Boys' Life."
Korder, however, isn't entirely without TV experience; he was story editor for two seasons of the CBS sitcom "Kate & Allie."
He's a long way from sitcom in "Lip Service," an incisive, wickedly funny and ultimately upsetting look at television and the Len Burdettes it has spawned.
One of the many great things about this film is how it paints neither of its two main characters as a saint nor a monster. For a while, in fact, Burdette even comes close to making his partner--and us-- like him (what he wants more than anything else) just because he doesn't mean any harm.
No one means any harm in "Lip Service." In fact, no one seems to know quite what they're doing or why they're doing it--including the smart-looking but secretly befuddled program director who hires Burdette almost on a coin toss.
Everyone's lost in this '80s wasteland. Everyone's just trying to hold onto his/her job. Or maybe move up a little, if that's all right with everybody else.
Even Hutchinson, the most likable character, one who once wanted to use television as a force for good, long ago lost hope amid its 24-hour-a-day, information-pumping noise. And now he's losing his place in his copy too--and maybe his job.
Watching him and his young partner, brilliantly played by these superb actors, is fascinating.
"Lip Service" isn't without fault: Maybe Dunne overdoes Burdette's constant facial movements a little; maybe Korder is a bit mannered in the way he has characters leave sentences unfinished. But this--and not the plane crashes and the silly authors Burdette loves so much--is what "good TV" is all about.