It's been several years now since the reality-television boom entered the pop-culture lexicon, nudged forth by the Springer generation of daytime TV and the merging of primetime news magazines with entertainment-based fluff. And to be honest, it's all too easy to unleash a diatribe against the trend toward slapping ballroom duds on aging soap stars, teaching them to dance and calling it entertainment, all the while contributing to the dwindling art of quality dramatic television. (Although, to be fair, it's this very trend plus the freedom enjoyed by cable that has helped said quality soar as a reaction to lowest-common-denominator fare; your Sopranos, Deadwoods and Curb Your Enthusiasms represent some of the very finest writing on any screen, big or small.) What's unnerving about the state of the box today isn't so much what it's become, but rather that we've been pointed in this direction for so long—for proof, look no further than Paddy Chayefsky's prescient Oscar-winning screenplay for 1976's Network.
Released this week as a two-disc special edition, Sidney Lumet's tremendous film of Chayefsky's bitingly satirical script has lost none of its edge in 30 years' time, though the humor is slightly harder to laugh at given how much of it mirrors the quick-fix, shock-value common denominator so sought by network execs to make a fast buck today. In his final film role, Peter Finch astounds as anchorman Howard Beale, whose on-air mental breakdown is a ratings bonanza for his struggling network; recently purchased by an entertainment conglomerate, the net gives him his own show instead of firing him as planned in hopes of exploiting his increasing psychosis for ratings gain. The starry cast packs a wallop, with William Holden's conscience-stricken news director and Faye Dunaway's ruthlessly amoral programmer at the forefront. (Dunaway won an Oscar that year, as Finch did posthumously). Features on the new collector's edition include commentary by Lumet, a six-part anniversary documentary, vintage interviews and more.
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Also recommended this week: Dog Day Afternoon: Special Edition; Lady and the Tramp: Special Edition; NewsRadio—The Complete Third Season; Walk the Line.