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Move over Univision, BET, and Lifetime Television for Women — we have arrived. While American entertainment has long had gay flavor, the dawn of here! and LOGO bring us two channels dedicated to all things GLBT. (Granted, here! management will point out that they’ve been around since 2002, but you’re excused if you didn’t notice.)
These two cable and satellite-delivered networks serve up more than the sexy beefcake that drives gay advertising dollars. As a matter of fact, former Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch has joined the here! camp with a heady brew of talk. From the halls of the HRC to your living room, Birch seems to have found a new career.
Don’t let the painfully corny name of the new show turn you off, Birch & Co. is actually more thoughtful than its title. First off, there’s no denying Birch is a sharp woman. Her resume as a litigator is impressive. She led HRC ably, in some ways becoming the face of gay America during her decade at the helm. She is a familiar anchor for here! among thousands of small-screen offerings.
Birch & Co. officially kicks off this Friday, Aug. 12, with Birch interviewing Rosie O’Donnell. Interviews with arch conservative Pat Buchanan and Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.) have already been taped. As of Metro Weekly press deadline, these three episodes of the show were available. If the screener copies are any indication, however, some bugs are still being worked out.
The O’Donnell and Buchanan interviews run a full hour each. It’s like sitting through a Barbara Walters special with a single guest and no commercial breaks. One difference: Walters, savvy to her audience’s baser appetites for the vulgar, likes to throw her viewers some red meat every so often. Birch is using a different playbook — our gay golden girl is not asking the sorts of questions that can be pulled for tabloid headlines. Rather, her style seems informed by erudite chatters Charlie Rose and Ron Reagan. Finding enough viewers to enjoy a very dignified hour, sans bluster, may be a tall order in the age of Punk’d and I Want to Be a Hilton.
There is a chance, however, the show may be whittled down to a half-hour. In any case, it seems that’s all the footage they’ve gotten with Lewis, unless they’re counting his 2003 HRC National Dinner speech tacked onto the end of the interview as part of the hour. Lewis may be a passionate speaker, but speeches don’t usually make for very exciting television.
The Lewis episode does offer an improvement over the two episodes that precede it. With O’Donnell and Buchanan, Birch offers a quick overview of her guest of no more than a minute or so. Then it’s off to the hour-long interview. The Lewis episode (minus the speech) is offered in a far more digestible format. The show begins with Birch narrating a short biopic of Lewis’s contributions to the African-American civil rights movement, his political rise, and the like. It’s background sorely missing from the other episodes. Let’s hope the Lewis format sticks.
Praiseworthy is Birch’s ability as a versatile interviewer, the strongest attribute she brings to the small screen. With O’Donnell, Birch can be downright girly, as the two discuss the sexiness of The L Word, season one versus season two. It’s welcome frivolity after Birch gets a bit too esoteric for popular consumption while discussing fame with Rosie, likening it to ”spinning like in a kind of rarified air.” Come again?
With Buchanan, Birch becomes a legal debater. One gets the impression she knows the pressure is on, that she wants to make sure she represents every corner of the GLBT community during her conversation with a man who, few would disagree, has repeatedly vilified us. With her legal acumen and non-profit diplomacy in her arsenal, she does not falter, representing the community with restraint and genteel civility, while still challenging Buchanan on a number of issues.
During the relatively short interview with Lewis, Birch spends her time showing due respect to the civil-rights icon. Unlike many interviewers, she doesn’t try to interrupt the conversation with equal airtime for herself, obviously recognizing that an interviewee of Lewis’s historical stature shouldn’t be competing for the spotlight. It’s a commonsense approach lost on many talking heads.
In Birch & Co., the ingredients for a great show are there. Birch is a quick study and, all things being equal, can only improve as she gets more practice as an interviewer. If the format can be hammered out, she’ll have the support she needs. The show is too intelligent to be a runaway hit, but thoughtful GLBT people craving something deeper than Queer Eye for the Straight Guy should be heartened by this new arrival.