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The Rapture is taking away TV’s stars and giving us great HBO shows

Mike Nichols is 82 years old. Diane Sawyer is 68.

I’d bet that the former, rather than the latter, was the key factor in Sawyer’s recent announcement that later in the summer she’d be abdicating her chair as the nightly anchor of ABC news.

Sawyer and Nichols have been married for 26 years. My ear has never been close to the ground for evidence of seismic activity in famous marriages so I frankly have no idea if there has ever been a rumble of dissidence in the Nichols/Sawyer menage.

From my perspective out here outside the 12-mile limit, they’ve been as solid as couples can be.

And, under such circumstances, a woman in her late 60s might very well want to adjust the ratio of business and family with an 82-year-old husband.

Especially now that anchor of the nightly news is no longer a shadow of the job it used to be.

Have you seen ABC News at dinner time recently? There are nights when if it were any more stuffed with soft features and miscellaneous panderings, the whole show would smell like dryer sheets. I have no doubt that Sawyer had more than a little to do with that but even if she did, it seems to me that abandoning the ABC news anchor chair in 2014 isn’t much of a sacrifice.

And when all this was announced, everyone made it crystal clear that she’d still be around to do interviews, etc. (In other words, potential on-air duty during the next cataclysmic breaking news story to add whatever she can add to the ABC news mix, which is considerable. You can bet the farm we’ll see her again with reasonable frequency.)

Sawyer brings something unique to TV and always has: She signifies – so some academics used to like to say – a pure American patrician. She may be the daughter of a judge in Kentucky and a former beauty pageant contestant but what she has brought to TV news – especially in her senior years – is the look and sound of America’s ownership class.

Diane Sawyer is pure Wellesley, class of 1967.

And that is why a good part of America, no matter how they feel about their own secret prejudices, has always trusted her. She’s the woman who, as a young girl, people without money could have wanted to discover as their daughter’s freshman college roommate.

She signifies far too much privilege to be overtly loved in a democracy but not so much that people don’t trust her completely when she’s sitting in a news anchor chair, where her look and her cadences seem to fit right in. If ever a woman seemed perfect for telling you about what America’s owners were doing with all our lives today, it was Diane Sawyer.

That, though, doesn’t change a simple fact that I think now must be faced about American television in the year 2014:

The Rapture has arrived.

Some mysterious alien force (demographics?) has taken over and given notice that half of the ruling population of talking heads is about to be yanked away into oblivion.

Jay Leno is gone, abandoned to the road for one-nighters. David Letterman will be gone after next year is over. Craig Ferguson will be gone after this year is out.

Barbara Walters is gone from “The View.” So will be everyone else on that show except Whoopi Goldberg. Katie Couric was surgically removed from CBS’ Nightly News anchor chair (if only she’d been taller and sounded wealthier) and refused to do sufficient downward dumbing to make her afternoon show a contender for Oprah-hood. (Remember that when Oprah started she was doing her version of Phil Donahue, a man who had no compunctions about cross-dressing for ratings.)

The Rapture has come to TV stardom.

Which leads me to make a very modest proposal.

Octogenarian Barbara Walters is, as she so often has in her life, showing the way. Even after all that public hoo-ha about her leaving “The View”, she’s still happy to appear on the air interviewing the grieving fathers of mass murderers in Isla Vista, Ca.

Which she did last week.

Smart. Very smart. Not just smart of her but smart of ABC News. When you’ve got a Babs on tap, you keep using her whenever it makes sense to do so and whenever she’s mentally and physically up to it.

Here’s my proposal: Someone needs to do with comedy what ABC, for one, obviously knows how to do with news stars i.e. keep them in front of the camera periodically and let them give us a new bunch of outcroppings from their heads.

Frankly, I seldom watch Letterman now after the monologue. Ferguson’s opening monologue was – at least once – one of the great moments in late night TV history. That’s when he announced his own status as a recovering alcoholic in AA and therefore his reluctance to make any more jokes about Britney Spears.

When they’re all gone we need a regular place for all of them – Leno too – to be able to drop in regularly and open-up the current contents of their heads for our edification in a place commensurate with their stature. The Johnny Carson solution – total disappearance except for some gags thrown over the transom to David Letterman – was a very bad one, it seems, both for his audience and for him too, for that matter.

We need a place for these guys to drop in every now and then and be treated as they used to be – often enough so that the regular traffic in them would be a draw in and of itself.

Someone needs to invent that place, post haste.

Meanwhile, if it seems as if I’ve got The Rapture on the brain, it’s because of this evening’s beginning of HBO’s 10-episode version of Tom Perotta’s novel “The Leftovers” (10 p.m., HBO) about an America after some future Oct. 14 when there was “the instantaneous disappearance of 2 per cent of the world’s population – 140 million souls.” The Rapture, you see, arrived and crying babies instantly disappeared from car seats and suburban dads disappeared from behind the carts they were pushing in drug store parking lots.

Three years later, in this pilot written by Perotta and Damon Lindelof (of “Lost,” and the movie script for “World War Z” fame), teen kids are significantly reading Camus’ “The Stranger,” alienation is everywhere (teens talk about getting “all intense and melancholy sometimes”) and weird mute people in white keep showing up to ruin everyone’s attempt to pretend normality. They refuse to talk but most of them have taken up smoking because, as The Rapture indicated, the world is ending anyway.

Tonight’s pilot is directed by Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights” so you’ll see the town sheriff (Justin Theroux) tell his teen daughter that there’s to be “no drinking” at a party she’s going to across town. Sure enough, when she gets there, it’s full of teens toking, snorting, bonging, and crack-piping but, hey, there’s no drinking.

In the world after The Rapture snatches away 2 percent of humankind, everyone is, understandably, flirting with a state of prolonged depressed grief. All of which made the one joke in the pilot one of the funniest things I’ve seen on television all year.

When, toward the end of the evening’s episode, we suddenly see a TV news montage of all of those who were snatched from earthly residence to where the enraptured go, it is fall off your chair funny.

But then you won’t forget the shock of the opening 10 minutes of the show either.

This is wonderfully bizarre TV for HBO, a wee bit more grief-stricken than many might be up for on Sunday nights.

But, come Monday, they can always watch ABC News at 6:30 p.m. for cheering up.