Sunday, September 12, 2010

Roger Ebert Returns

The long, strange journey of film review program At the Movies is coming full circle. And I couldn't be happier.

The venerable talker, originally hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert when it launched on PBS in the '70s as Sneak Previews, was picked up by syndicator Disney as first At the Movies, and eventually became Siskel & Ebert.  The rest is, of course, the stuff that TV history is made of.  On a personal level, the show played a direct role in fostering my love of film criticism, which continues unabated to this day. When Ebert bowed out of the series a few years ago after his recent struggles -- which I discussed at length here -- it was retooled to 'zazz things up, pairing film critic/historian Ben Mankiewicz with "film critic"/empty vessel Ben Lyons, best known until then as E! Entertainment's "movie dude."

Needless to say, the results weren't pleasant. Out went partner Richard Roeper, out went the old balcony set, and out went the detailed, nuanced style of criticism the show had pioneered in its previous life. Instead we got, well, Ben Lyons, whose very name soon became a metaphor for mediocrity, and whose inexplicable ascension to the hallowed seats once held by Siskel & Ebert led many to wonder if the art of substantive film criticism, already under siege in the Rotten Tomatoes era, had finally breathed its last (read Ebert's take here). Now, in defense of the "Two Bens" iteration of At the Movies, Mankiewicz (the cousin of screenwriter Tom) did just fine, but I have to think that Lyons' brand of practiced vapidity would be Kryptonite to just about anyone -- and by the end even he'd had enough.

Anyway, when ratings predictably nosedived, the show's producers realized the error of their ways, retooling it yet again last fall.  Lyons and Mankiewicz were gone, and respected critics A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips made a real go at taking the series back to its roots.  Although their presence signalled a welcome return to form, the audiences that had abandoned ship in droves during the course of the previous year mostly stayed away.  This in turn led to Disney's (by now inevitable) cancellation of At the Movies after an amazing thirty-plus year run.  It looked like the final episode a few weeks ago seemingly marked the end of film criticism on TV as well.

However, with Roger Ebert announcing on Friday that At the Movies is returning to PBS -- again with his participation! -- it looks like Mark Twain's old adage is in full effect.  The revived series (which Ebert has been working toward for awhile now, and which he calls "the rebirth of a dream") will have critics Christy Lemire and Elvis Mitchell handling the weekly-back-and-forth (including the "thumbs up/thumbs down" that had been discontinued in recent years), and Ebert will contribute weekly segments along with several other well known web critics and bloggers.  Needless to say, this is incredibly welcome news, and without Disney in the mix, hopefully it means we'll be spared another Ben Lyons-styled creative makeover down the line that's chasing demos instead of something more substantive.

The new series, bearing the official title of Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies, will premiere this fall on PBS stations across the country, though it will, just like its forebear did for so many years, be shot in my hometown of Chicago.  Get all of the details from the man himself here.  Welcome back, Roger!

No comments: