TV Review: "Mastergate"

by Miles Beller

Nattering nabobs of know-nothingness, Slick Willies and Read-My-Lips lackeys of insta-poll results.

They're all present and stingingly accounted for in Larry Gelbart's masterful send-up of a political cover-up, Mastergate, airing on Showtime.

Now, political intrigue is tricky business even when handled by the most accomplished artist. For every Shakespeare who makes timeless theater out of the machinations and double-dealings of Caesar and company, there swarms a multitude of lesser lights turning such dealings into regrettable farce, the stuff bad off-off Broadway is made of.

Consequently, Gelbart's "Mastergate" is all the more impressive, operating as incisive, sardonic examination of government as dysfunctional "trust," bumbling and stumbling forward as mis-representative of the people.

Showtime’s TV treatment of this piece by Gelbart (who has authored such diverse entertainments as "Oh, God" and "City of Angels") is deftly conveyed as if carried by CNN, complete with super pumped-up logos, computer-generated graphics, flashing ID's, nanosecond analyses and cutaways for “breaking” news. Moreover, this production — featuring a sharp, smart cast including Ed Begley Jr., James Coburn, Robert Guillaume, Buck Henry, Richard Kiley, Burgess Meredith, Jerry Orbach, Marcia Strassman and Dennis Weaver—er, liberally borrows from such real-life political fiascoes as Iraqgate and the Iran-Contra scandal for its slap-dash ironic bite.

As contemporary comedic exploration of bureaucratic malfeasance, Gelbart's "Gate" assuredly "says something," as the cliché goes, about modern Machiavellianism and egos out of balance, his play perfectly pitched to catch the TV-i-zation of private morality into public carny act, where the press hisses white noise accompaniment to the bellicose braying of congressional speechifiers.

This cable rendition of Gelbart's work stands as Saturday Night Massacre by way of "Saturday Night Live," an acidly funny show of the military-government-media follies that invariably eclipses the new and enfeebled "real" situation comedies beamed home by networks this time each year.

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