NBC continues its campaign to make Maria Shriver into the Barbara Walters of the '90s with another interview special that airs tonight at 10 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR). Unfortunately Shriver remains stuck in the wrong decade.
Actually she's improved a bit since this show started last August. Then it had the pretentious title of "Cutting Edge," even though it was mainly old hat. Now's it's called "First Person."
The change in title seemed to signify a toning down of the show's initial attempts to be frenetic and energetic. In tonight's hour there are competent interviews with a nice panoply of subjects -- Gloria Estefen, Demi Moore, Michael Jordan and Al Sharpton.
Estefen has always come across as an intelligent down-to-earth type in her interviews, especially when contrasted with the spotlights and glitz that dominate the stage shows she does with the Miami Sound Machine.
And she doesn't disappoint with Shriver in a segment that focuses mainly on her recovery from a nearly career-ending back injury suffered when a truck rammed the back of her band's bus on a snowy Pennsylvania highway a year ago.
Still, as you listen to Shriver use her flat, uninspired and cliche-ridden prose to extol Estefen's courage as she worked her way back to the stage with the aid of millions of dollars her last two albums earned and four personal trainers a day, you find yourself yearning for the story of some working stiff, maybe injured on the job, who had to go to a public rehabilitation center so he could get back to work and keep food on his family's table. That's real courage deserving the prime time spotlight.
Each of the interviews, while clearly competent and touching all the right bases, has something similarly missing. With Demi Moore, she discusses what it's like to be Mrs. Bruce Willis, again as if the prospect of having a multi-million-dollar-per-picture career overshadowed by a husband who gets a percentage of the gross was a depressing and lamentable fate. There is, of course, a bit of sisterhood empathy here between Mrs. Bruce Willis and Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And when she asks Moore if people treat women who act tough differently than they treat men who act that way, as if that had never been posed before, you yearn for a different question, anything, maybe what kind of tree Demi would like to be.
As for Jordan, he comes across as an earnest man of few words. Indeed, you end up seeing a lot more of Jordan's various commercials than you do of Shriver's sit-down talk with him.
There's a patina of depth as she asks about what it's like to be a role model and correctly praises Jordan's attempts to act responsibly with his wealth and status. But there's never genuine depth, never anything about kids being killed for their Nike Air Jordans, never anything about the overblown role of sports among those kids, little about the commercial image overshadowing not only the real man, but the basketball player as well, the wrapping becoming more important than the contents. But give Shriver credit for including Al Sharpton, the civil rights personality who occupies the position once held by teacher's union head Albert Shenker -- designated villain among New York city's middle and upper classes. But those New Yorkers might accuse Shriver of being soft on Sharpton, of letting him come across as soft-spoken and reasonable while not giving enough coverage of his demagogic side.
Oh, she dutifully chronicles the controversy that surrounds Sharpton -- though leaving out his most recent starring role in the the Central Park jogger case -- but the debate over Sharpton is never really joined. You hear that he has succeeded in getting prosecutions for white-on-black crimes, but hear little from those who think that he seeks to encourage and exploit racism, not put an end to it, because that would put an end to his time in the spotlight.
Indeed, one intriguing comment by a black woman, who said Sharpton comes in and stirs up trouble and then leaves the residents behind to live with it, is not followed up at all. The segment ends leaving you confused, not edified, about Sharpton.
The problem with Shriver's viewpoint is that it's vintage 1980s. She still thinks that being rich or famous -- preferably both -- means that you're going to be a fascinating person to talk to, and that all America is going to want to hear what you have to say.
But in this post-Reagan, post-junk bond, post-S & L crisis decade, we need a bit more than that. We're struggling to stay afloat out here and Shriver's throwing us gold-plated life preservers that sink like stones.
The interviewer of the '90s can still give us celebrities, but they've got to come with insight and understanding. A visit with them can't just be a fantasy-like escape, it has to have some connection to our lives. That's a connection Shriver has yet to prove she can make.