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MAY 18, 1998: 

TV Nation, Volume 2

with Janeane Garafolo, Steven Wright

TV Nation, Volume 2


Roger & Me

D. Michael Moore

The revolution may not be televised, but it's certainly not Michael Moore's fault. During his brief tenure as a small-screen muckraker, Moore did his damnedest to bring a little revolution to the suffocatingly mainstream media of network television. He was devoured, of course, by shows like America's Most Wanted, but his bones can still be seen in two tapes from TV Nation, the documentary show he hosted over two seasons, first on NBC and later on Fox.

The TV Nation tapes find Michael Moore - the portly documentarian behind Roger & Me and the new The Big One - at his satiric best, serving as ringmaster to a group of left-leaning correspondents including such guest saboteurs as Steven Wright and Janeane Garafalo. Commie pinko treehuggers every damn one, they gallivant from coast to coast in search of deserving victims, finding no short supply of same. In the course of their wanderings, a consumerist, corporate, carefree America is hoisted on its oh-so-large petard. Consider it guerrilla television in eight-minute splatches.

The chief weapon in the Michael Moore arsenal is, as always, the prank. Political, populist, and tailor-made for television, these spectacularly unsubtle pranks are witty, revealing, and blessedly short on demagoguery. A few of the offerings from the tapes: on "Love Night," Moore sends a mariachi band and multiracial kick-dancing chorus line to a KKK rally... and a gay men's chorus to serenade Jesse Helms; a black correspondent travels to Mississippi to see if he can buy - or at least rent - a few slaves before that state's 1995 law banning slavery takes effect; Janeane Garafalo and a boatload of common rabble from New York City storm a private Connecticut beach, attracting an indignant local crowd and a phalanx of lockstep law enforcement officers.

Portly documentarian Michael Moore, always hoisting corporate America on its oh-so-large petard.
Perhaps more delicious are the wry segments on the excesses of the corporate class, whose greed and disingenuousness Moore first tweaked in Roger & Me. He hosts a free "Corp-Aid" concert on Wall Street to help the corporate transgressors who have amassed the heaviest civil and criminal fines over the last year: While he raises some $275.64 in donations, no company - not even a red-faced Exxon, suffering from a $5 billion environmental fine - will accept his gift. Pondering the job-sapping effects of NAFTA, Moore considers moving production of TV Nation to the Reynoso, Mexico maquiladoras; upset over corporate crime, he enlists the help of Crackers, the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken, an eight-foot rubber-beaked mascot whose mission is to root out corporate wrongdoing wherever it rears its white-collared neck. Serious subjects, when you get right down to it, but the TV Nation correspondents are careful to mix a good dose of whimsy with their occasional dismay, and the result is a tone that is more ribsplittin' than bilespittin'. What is the Yugoslav proverb that Jim Hightower is always quoting? Ah yes: You can fight the gods and still have fun.

Savage, subversive, unashamedly coarse, it's still not all great stuff. The generally reliable Moore does indulge a lame joke now and then, and even the most devoted members of the far-left radical fringe will notice a conspicuous lack of fair play. But the zest with which it's delivered and the fact that it is so unheard of in mainstream media makes TV Nation so much fun that you'll forgive the occasional lame gag or bombastic excess.

It's no surprise that TV Nation was short-lived. Ratings hit or no (and it definitely was not one), it's hard to imagine just which corporations were lining up to buy ad time on the show anyway. While Seinfeld fills the air with ubiquitous plugs for product after product (paid or not, I don't know, but you can't get through an episode without a marketable reference), Moore revealed a virtual laundry list of companies worthy of boycott, giving corporate America as public a thumping as they'd gotten in years. Who knows if it made a damn whit of difference - the public sentiment remains firmly tied to the health of the Dow Jones, at any rate - but in tilting at those multinational windmills, Moore reminds us that, hell, fighting the gods can be fun.

My advice? Open a (union-made) sixer, rent one of these tapes (each contains two episodes), and join the revolution... if only for a night.

Roger & Me is the film that made Michael Moore famous. On surface a film about the closing of a GM plant in Flint, Michigan (in which some 30,000 autoworkers lost their jobs), on a deeper level it is a film about the American industrial decline of the Eighties and the casualties of that decline. Built with a skeptical tongue, a humane heart, and some devastating cuts (from a beauty pageant to a house eviction, for instance), Roger & Me was a commercial and critical success, earning more cold hard cash (at the time) than any documentary in history. Now considered a classic, it is worth a second (or third) watch as an example of what Moore can do with some deep dissatisfaction and a little time in the editing booth. The film's title refers to Moore's futile efforts to talk to GM chairman Roger Smith, the oleaginous top dog who ordered the Flint closing and netted himself a sharp $2 million raise in the process.- Jay Hardwig

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