Requiem for a Television Show

July 28, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

I debated at some length whether to write this column. After all, did I really have anything unique to add to the thousands upon thousands of words that have been written about this subject over the past week? What decided the matter for me was reading Roger Ebert's blog entry about the matter. The TV show that began life as "Sneak Previews" means something different to each person who has watched it over the years. So, while this farewell may in some ways be no different that hundreds of others, it is filtered through memories that are uniquely mine.

I will forever know the program as "Siskel & Ebert." It has had other names, of course: "Sneak Previews" (when it was on PBS), "Siskel & Ebert and the Movies", and (most recently) "Ebert & Roeper." Now, presumably, it will be something else. I know the names of the new hosts but I have no desire to watch them. Truth be told, I haven't seen a single show since illness stole Ebert from the airwaves. Even before that, my viewership had eroded since that sad day in early 1999 when Gene Siskel gave his final thumb up or down. For me, the memories are of the two of them, locked as in mortal combat, debating a movie with a passion that can't be faked. Over the years, Roger probably threw more knockout punches than Gene, but Siskel rarely went down without a fight. For me, when Gene died, some of the life went out of the show. When necessity forced Roger's departure, there was nothing left. The announcement that both Ebert and Roeper were leaving seemed like a belated acknowledgment of the inevitable. Still, like the death of someone who has been on life support, it may not be a surprise, but it still provokes a moment of introspection and loss.

Some have written about the profound impact "Siskel & Ebert" has had upon film criticism, reducing it from wordy newspaper and magazine articles to a thumb pointed in one direction or another. Others have remarked how profoundly it affected their lives. Many of today's breed of Internet critics cite "Siskel & Ebert" as the reason they started writing reviews. This isn't my situation. I became aware of film criticism as a result of "Siskel & Ebert," but they played no part in my decision to write or post reviews. Nevetheless, I won't deny the thrill I felt when I got that first e-mail from Roger in 1997, and what a joy it was to meet him in person later that year and find out he's as nice and warm and giving a man as you'll ever meet. Without his support in the late '90s, who knows if I would still be doing this?

I watched my first episode of "Siskel & Ebert" in 1977 when I was nine years old. It was accidental. I tuned in to watch "Fawlty Towers," but it had been moved back 30 minutes. So I watched these two mismatched guys: The Fat One and the Bald One, as they would become popularly known, discuss movies. Their impressions of Star Wars were of special interest, because this was a film I was hoping to see. So I watched them off-and-on for a while, until it became a habit. Back in those days, I had trouble remembering which one was Siskel and which one was Ebert until a friend provided this pneumonic: "Larger Roger; Lean Gene."

I agreed more often with Gene, but found Roger to be more eloquent in his short critiques. Some of their battles were legendary but, perhaps surprisingly, most episodes went by without anything more than a minor squabble or two. Still, over the years, it was easy to see the relationship between the two change. They started out as rivals who couldn't stand each other. They ended up as colleagues who had learned to respect one another. You could see this in the way they treated one another on-air. The last year was especially difficult as we saw Gene wither in front of our eyes and watched Roger take on the burden of shepherding the program through its difficult transition. The tribute show Roger taped after Gene's death was note-perfect: honest, upbeat, and not too sentimental. It's too bad it's not available in the show's video archives. (Or, if it is, I haven't been able to find it.)

"Siskel & Ebert" ended nearly ten years ago, but the show went on, and it seemed like nothing could kill it. Now, it will limp into the future but I suspect that, without Ebert's name, its future is not rosy. "Sneak Previews" eventually folded after S&E left, as did "At the Movies." While the pairing of Ebert and Roeper is not as "sexy" as that of Siskel and Ebert, it means something. Both Roger and Richard have spoken of a "new venture" and one suspects it will keep them together. Whether it will be another television show or something on-line remains to be seen. I would love to see if Ebert and Roeper's project could involve some form of interactive chat room activity. Roger may have lost the power of speech, but he has not lost his voice.

So I won't mourn the passing of "Ebert & Roeper" the way some will. I will not watch the final Ebert-less broadcast next month. (It has been moved around so much on the TV schedule, I'm not sure when it's on. It has long since left the early Sunday afternoon slot that was its berth for so many years.) It's a passing of sorts, but no one has died. For me, has brought Roger to life more than any television program, and that will go on. Everything ends. Let's see what this ending gives birth to.