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Showtime Takes On The Rise And Fall Of Fox News' Roger Ailes In 'The Loudest Voice'


Showtime is taking on the rise and fall of Fox News founder Roger Ailes in a new limited series, "The Loudest Voice" - debuts Sunday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the program is so engrossed with its subject that it often misses the mark on the bigger story.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: For better and worse, Showtime's "The Loudest Voice" is focused like a laser on its star and lead character, compelling chameleon Russell Crowe as master media manipulator Roger Ailes.


RUSSELL CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) There's a whole world of people out there who don't know what to believe; so twisted up by the liberal media they don't even know who the good guys are anymore. You tell those people what to think, you've lost them. But if you tell them how to feel...

DEGGANS: Better known for athletic roles in action films like "Gladiator" and "Man Of Steel," Crowe transforms himself under a fat suit and tons of makeup as aging, overweight media mogul Ailes. He plays him as a wily, charismatic operator. Ailes understood, back in the mid-1990s, when News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch first decided to build a new cable news channel, that the world of cable was different than broadcast television.


CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) Cable is about one thing - the loyalty of a passionate few. We need to program directly to the viewer who is predisposed to buying what we're trying to sell. In politics, it's called turning out the base. If we can do that, then they will never change the channel.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And what is that niche?

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) Well, I think it is conservatives.

DEGGANS: In that moment, Ailes explains the strategy behind Fox News Channel, a media outlet that's as much a political operation as a news platform. We see other moments - Ailes cracking horribly inappropriate jokes, like his jab at 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain.


CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) I like John a lot, but his message - it's about as limp as Liberace's handshake.


DEGGANS: We see him taking credit for the racist birtherism that launched Donald Trump's political career.


CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) You know, we don't even have any proof that Obama is a citizen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Did you feed that to Trump? He was just on "The View" questioning Obama's birth certificate.

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) We might've had a dinner.

DEGGANS: And we see sexual harassment against a number of women, especially anchor Gretchen Carlson, played by Naomi Watts. It's summed up in a moment when Carlson, a former Miss America, complains about her "Fox & Friends" co-anchor Steve Doocy.


NAOMI WATTS: (As Gretchen Carlson) Doocy's out of control. He grabbed my arm on air to try to get me to shut up.

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) Gretchen, Gretchen - you're Miss America. How would Miss America handle this? With grace, give a little twirl. So let's see it. Why don't we see a little Miss America twirl?

DEGGANS: Carlson would eventually file a lawsuit against Ailes in 2016, saying she was fired for resisting his advances. Two weeks later, Ailes resigned under pressure. And by May of the next year, he had died of natural causes. Showtime's miniseries is based on reporting by journalist Gabriel Sherman, including his scoops for New York Magazine and "The Loudest Voice In The Room," Sherman's excellent Ailes biography.

But the miniseries doesn't give any character besides Ailes enough attention, at least in the four episodes provided to critics. Some major Fox News stars like Bill O'Reilly only appear in news clips, and the women Ailes is shown harassing are mostly ciphers. "The Loudest Voice" implies that Ailes laid the seeds for our divided politics, our fake news crisis, the ascendancy of Trump and our #MeToo moment.

But the miniseries tries to cover so much ground it can only skim the surface of these stories, while offering a sometimes sympathetic portrayal of the man who built cable TV's most-watched news channel and the heartbeat of conservative politics. The result is a primer on one of TV's most influential creators and an excellent showcase for star Russell Crowe that will still leave viewers wanting something more. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE'S "BLACK CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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