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COMMENTARY

Jeff Simon: This weekend's 'The Loudest Voice' on Showtime begins with a bang

His name is Lew Lehrman.

In 1982, he had no business coming from nowhere into 2 percentage points of winning the vote for governor of New York State. That's what he did to the amazement of almost everybody and the consternation of the Democratic Party. Until he ran for governor he was only -- if at all -- known as the executive heir apparent of Rite-Aid, the family business.

Political smartypants were waiting for Mario Cuomo to pulverize him. Instead, Cuomo only squeaked by while Lehrman plucked enough votes out of thin air to make an astonishing showing.

Lehrman's success can, if necessary, be explained by two words: Roger Ailes. If you insist on amplification, add four more words -- the evil genius thereof. To be frank, I know of no single political advertising campaign on TV that ever accomplished more than Ailes did in 1982 when he packaged a rich unknown so cunningly in TV ads that the unknown almost became the governor.

By the time Ailes got through with packaging Lehrman in TV ads, the former nonentity seemed like a vigorous businessman who wanted nothing more than to roll up his sleeves and look more gubernatorial than any New York governor ever had.

It wasn't just all those ads showing him campaigning in his shirt sleeves, it was the red suspenders he wore while he did. They were the clincher. Lehrman wore them all through his ad campaign. To 1982 voters, they screamed "vigor!" and "style!" and "prosperity!" and "privileged panache!" Ailes knew they'd get a ton of votes for basement level TV reasons. A consummate TV man had transformed a political tyro into a seductive TV act.

It was, years before, Richard Nixon who, more or less, plucked Ailes from the staff of the Mike Douglas Show where Ailes learned to function with extraordinary success in MOR Ohio. Ailes was a heartland TV genius and Nixon, no doubt, figured he'd prove it one day.

And so he did. Over and over again -- in campaigns for all manner of Republican candidates, including Ronald Reagan.

Then Ailes took over a financial cable channel that was a crashing bore to watch -- CNBC -- and put some of the smartest and most shamelessly lively TV talk of the time on it.

The most brilliant, by far, was a show called "Equal Time," which, from 1995 to 1999, put two sensationally smart and politically hip women -- Republican operative Mary Matalin, and liberal, feisty former CBS reporter Jane Wallace -- on opposite political poles so they could meet in the middle as two ulra-clever women chortling and cackling at all the male dimwits who thought they knew better.

The two women sarcastically called themselves "info babes." Republican Matalin was married to hard-charging "War Room" Clintonite James "It's The Economy Stupid" Carville. Even more than Katie Couric, Wallace had perfected the art of laughing so lustily during interviews that her subjects never knew they were being eviscerated forever to a peevish world.

Wallace, reportedly, was temperamental. But then her disappearance into TV kiddie journalism after "Equal Time" was one of the more mysterious journalistic abdications in TV news history. When you're talking about stuff overseen by Ailes, who knows what voodoo and juju were involved?

Whatever you do, don't try to tell me that no self-respecting millennial should give a fig about ancient political and TV history. Ailes' reputation as a genius of political TV was well-established long before he created Fox News out of nothing.

That's where the story begins Sunday in Showtime's six-part mini-series with the most exciting hour of premium "Peak TV" I've seen on cable TV so far this year.

"The Loudest Voice" is based on Gabriel Sherman's reportage on Ailes' downfall during Fox's travails for being a seething culture of sexual misconduct. So it begins with Ailes creating Fox News out of nothing at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, who can hear, as soon as Ailes begins to talk, that Ailes' hunger for domination equaled his own even if Murdoch's know-how, unlike Ailes', didn't match it. To have Roger Ailes working for Rupert Murdoch promised nothing but opposition nightmare to the orthodoxy of American news media.

The opening hour of that story on Showtime -- Fox News' mythological origin story -- is, in this telling, the most exciting hour of dramatic "Peak TV" I've seen since the original "Big Little Lies" for two reasons. The first is Russell Crowe, in another of those performances that are genuinely breathtaking (see "The Insider," "A Beautiful Mind," "L.A. Confidential"). It isn't just all that prosthetic fat that adds avoirdupois to Crowe's frame or the facial makeup. It's the way Crowe moves in every scene, like a man 100 pounds heavier than the actor actually is. To be entirely honest, I don't know if Ailes in motion moved exactly that way, but it's completely convincing when you see it.

So is the tenderness and suavity at first that make Ailes seem believably charming and attractive to Fox News' historically fetishized blonde news women.

I've seen the first three episodes of "The Loudest Voice" and that doesn't last. In the second and third episodes, the mini-series finds its way back to where we know it's going in its tale of Ailes and Fox News. It is, after all, based on Sherman's reportage in New York Magazine and his subsequent bestseller "The Loudest Voice in the Room."

That is the story of a whole culture of sexual privilege and abuse at Fox News with special misbehavior by Ailes, one of the most powerful and brilliant executives in TV history, and his No. 1 attraction, Bill O'Reilly, whose payoffs to mistreated women exceeded many millions. A whole gender reckoning set in and so many of those stories were tumbling out of the closet with a deafening and career-smashing clatter.

The excitement of that first hour of "The Loudest Voice" is that it manages to do something many would assume impossible: It almost makes moderates and liberals root for Roger Ailes while he creates Fox News out of nothing but gigantic savvy. And that's the second reason.

We're watching a Satanically cunning visionary ("people don't want to be informed," he says, "they want to feel informed") who has figured out the way to combat CNN is with something "Fast. Hard. Edgy. Tabloid TV."

It's part of our American mythology that, whatever our politics, we are suckers for such stories, especially when they're as well-told as they are here in that first episode. We love smart-alec outsiders coming in from the cold and setting the big shots on their big rear-ends with new ideas.

Everything in that first hour is exhilarating. That shouldn't surprise anyone who knows the pedigree of that first hour -- script by Tom McCarthy, the actor who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning "Spotlight;" directed by Kari Shogland, whose work on "The Handmaid's Tale" was exemplary on current "Peak TV."

Episodes two and three are more than good; they're just not shockingly so. They give you Ailes responding to 9/11 (with a wonderfully subtle touch when we see how Ailes' executive assistant behaves) and then John McCain's loss to Barack Obama. Of course, those episodes give you inklings of all those women clustering around Fox who finally banded together to say "no more" to sexual mistreatment and oust its biggest names.

To be brutally frank, we all know the stories that are coming, especially those of us who followed Sherman as he reported them weekly. Naomi Watts plays Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News figure whom Ailes brags he will transform into the third "Miss America" he'll turn into a sexual consort -- only to watch a gender uprising instead. O'Reilly will no longer drain the Fox coffers pointlessly to prove his virility.

Crowe, we know, will be every bit as good as he is asked to be, but probably never again as good as he is in Episode One.

I think we can all assume that will be more than good enough to rivet us throughout "The Loudest Voice."

This much I know for sure: Whatever you do, if you get Showtime, don't miss Episode One of "The Loudest Voice."

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