NBC's new drama "Deadline" accurately portrays the gritty side of daily newspaper journalism. 

Above the Fold

The reporter called the dead woman "pancake lady."

That's how I knew somebody with a feel for gritty daily journalism had a hand in creating NBC-TV's new "Deadline."

Why did "pancake lady" tell me so much?

Because it's just the kind of thing a cynical, don't-get-too-involved-because-it-hurts-too-much reporter would say about a woman who'd gotten herself flattened by a bus.

No doubt about it: "Deadline" isn't about journalists like Mary Richards or even Lou Grant. It's about reporters who work their butts off to find the angle on a story that nobody else has, who know what the underbelly of their beat looks and smells like, who live with their jobs and actually think — no, make that hope — they're doing something worthwhile, because their paychecks sure aren't big enough to justify the hours they're putting in. It's a lousy job, as the cliché goes, but somebody's got to do it.

My second clue was that the lead character, Wallace Benton, is no Robert Redford analog. He's fat. He's got bad hair. And his humor tends strongly towards the crude.

This fits my mental picture of what a real reporter looks like. After hanging around newsrooms for 30 years, I safely can say that you won't find a lot of Brad Pitt types on the police beat or pounding with two fingers on a keyboard under fluorescent lights in a newspaper cubicle farm. TV newsrooms abound with Barbies and Kens, but not newspaper newsrooms.

Dick Wolf, the Emmy Award-winning creator of "Deadline," is good at this sort of thing. He's also the driving force behind NBC's "Law & Order," another drama that specializes in confronting reality without flinching.

In "Deadline," Wallace Benton (Oliver Platt) is a bigger-than-life Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Ledger who speaks in italics. He also teaches a graduate-level university seminar on journalism, and his students usually play a part — sometimes even a major role — in helping him track down the facts to build a story that will get him front-page, above-the-fold play in tomorrow morning's paper.

Wolf has surrounded Platt with a bundle of talent: Bebe Neuwirth plays the paper's managing editor, Lili Taylor is a venomous columnist, Hope Davis is Benton's estranged wife and fellow reporter, and Tom Conti is the media tycoon (whose empire includes the Ledger) with a fondness for smack-'em-in-the-face headlines.

Crisply written, ingeniously plotted and more than a little relevant in an era when the media are ranked right up there with used-car salesmen and lawyers, "Deadline" is a crackerjack hour of

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