THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE RATINGS GAME"
These days, original movies made for cable TV channels are not only commonplace, they're also often viewed as equal to and in some cases better than their theatrical counterparts. During the 1980's, they were much less common. Premium channels were only just beginning to experiment with producing their own features. In 1984, Showtime dipped their toe into the water for the first time with The Ratings Game, a Danny DeVito-directed comedy. (It was his first full-length feature, pre-dating Throw Momma From the Train by three years.) The channel ended up being not quite ready to commit, though, and the film fell through the proverbial cracks after its debut, despite good reviews. For years, fans who fondly remembered The Ratings Game have clamored for a home video release. Olive Films obliges with a DVD and Blu-ray, available on July 19.
DeVito stars as Vic De Salvo, a New Jersey trucking magnate who dreams of making it as a Hollywood television producer. He takes his terrible scripts to all the networks and is repeatedly turned down. Then he approaches the fictional MBC, where the just-fired head of comedy development greenlights Vic's certain-to-bomb show as revenge against his boss. Desperate to make his show a hit despite obvious network apathy, Vic conspires with Francine Kester (Rhea Perlman), a frustrated employee of the company that measures TV ratings, to make it appear that viewership is through the roof.
The Ratings Game is admittedly pretty dated. Nonetheless, its spoofing of '80s TV shows is spot-on. Anyone who remembers the worst television fare of that time will get some laughs of recognition. A montage of MBC's new shows, which the network president (Gerrit Graham) presents to a room full of local affiliates, is especially funny. One is a very serious-looking drama about the hidden lives of sanitation workers. Another is a situation comedy about a guy who cross-dresses in the military. Vic's show, meanwhile, is a dopey sitcom revolving around a male college student accidentally placed into a dorm room with two hot female twins. These concepts are not far removed from things that were actually programmed back then.
The look at the insanity of ratings is kind of clever, too. There is truth to the movie's assertion that a handful of randomly selected individuals determine the fate of shows. Even though it's a statistically significant sample, a degree of luck certainly has to be involved. If different people with different tastes were randomly selected, the ratings could look much different than they do.
The Ratings Game is at its weakest when it focuses on the romance between Vic and Francine. That's pretty standard stuff, and it feels wedged in more out of obligation than inspiration. DeVito and Perlman are both good in the movie; the relationship their characters have just feels half-baked. Also, television has changed so dramatically since 1984 that the film has lost a lot of its direct relevance. There's still fun to be had, it's just that the sting isn't as great as it likely was when it initially aired.
Even so, this is most definitely an interesting curio from the '80s, reflecting what was happening in the world of television at that time. The Ratings Game also boasts pre-fame cameos from Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards. The Blu-ray which looks really good, by the way is sweetened with a small handful of deleted scenes, four short films directed by DeVito, a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, and an impressive booklet of liner notes and photographs. Olive Films has put together a very good package for this lost film.
For more information on this and other titles, please visit the Olive Films website.
The Ratings Game is unrated, but contains adult language and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
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