In this media cautionary tale from a veteran broadcast journalist, currently the London Bureau Chief of CBS News, a virtual Elvis hosts a prime-time TV show with near-apocalyptic results.
Holding down a less-than-stellar job with a basement-rated affiliate in Dallas, Nick Upton drinks to excess and ruminates on the awfulness of the business. Narrating in flashback from a dispirited, rainy present in a London hotel, he recalls what happened when, just as he was about to get canned by the station’s new owner, Clare Leese, he pulled an ace out of his sleeve: a walking, talking Elvis program created by wunderkind techie Duncan Gelder. At first the station has Elvis doing his King of Rock-and-Roll shtick in the middle of the night, but when Leese realizes what a potential following the cult hit has, he refurbishes a downtown Dallas theater, brings in a live audience, wheels Elvis out on a giant monitor, and moves him to primetime. After the novelty factor wears off, Leese orders Nick and his team to start booking more controversial shows. They bring on the parents of a murdered child to talk to Elvis and even present “Geldered” footage that’s more compelling than the real thing. Nick has few qualms about this until Elvis starts to pontificate unduly, and his audience begins to follow what he’s saying with a mob’s fatal fervor. A store accused of paying slave wages is burned down. So is a crowded gay nightclub featured in a piece on homosexuality in America. Societal chaos comes on suspiciously fast—even the O.J. trial didn’t galvanize this much public attention—but is nevertheless chilling to behold. Paxson’s satire is more successful than most, mainly because he doesn’t belabor the central premise but rather uses Elvis as an elemental touchstone of our collective culture. Sharp knowledge of the media landscape and an effective thriller-like structure are also pluses.
Rarely preachy and always compelling: a cultural satire that hits every target it aims at.