At The Movies Retrospective Pt. 1: Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz

By September 2008, all shreds of At The Moviesas it once was were gone. Gene Siskel was long dead, Roger Ebert had lost the ability to speak due to a bout with thyroid cancer and Richard Roeper, who replaced Siskel following his death, left the balcony after eight years due to failed contract negotiations.

Even the show’s most notable trademark, the “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” grade were gone (Ebert retained the rights which he kept for himself), replaced with the far less memorable “See It,” “Rent It” and “Skip It.”

Hoping to “take the program in a new direction,” producers appointed E! Online columnist Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz as the new co-hosts. And while this lineup wasn’t the last ATM would produce, the abysmal program they created was undeniably the biggest deathblow planted on the once great show.

Watching Lyons and Mankiewicz sludge through one awful series of reviews after another was the equivalent of hearing your all-time favorite song being covered by a band whose members never learned how to play an instrument. Every second was phony and contrived, made all the worse by the two Bens’ completely non-existent chemistry.

Things were awful from the start, as producers initially tried to implement a “Critics Roundup” where a Lyons/Mankiewicz review was followed by a panel discussion with three other critics who appeared via satellite. I understand the merit in thinking people may want to get as many opinions as possible before seeing a movie, and that’s why Rotten Tomatoes exists. People who grew up with this show like it because of the two man back-and-forth, and bringing in other people seems to suggest (justified) limited faith in your on-air talent.

But what I hated most about the Lyons/Mankiewicz mash-up was that the show simply felt staged. Both men seemed fearful of ever diverting from script, given completely standard takes on movies before waiting until the very end to give their final verdict. All the tension which made the original At The Movies was gone forever, which left movie snobs bored at listening to people they don’t trust, and casual movie watchers appalled by having  to listen to two nimrods who actually had the audacity to tell them what to think (it’s like this site, only done by people with higher credentials).

Final Words:

After endless criticism, most directed squarely at Lyons who was seen as more of a quote whore than a real critic, the two Bens were pulled from the air after one awful year. The only thing that kept them from soiling the ATM legacy is the fact that no one really watched them enough to care about the damage they were doing.

There would be one last go-around to see if anyone who didn’t have the last name Siskel, Ebert or Roeper could make people interested in televised film criticism, when Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, two former Ebert sit-ins, took over the reigns in Sept. of 2009. Improvement was a given, but would their show actually be worth watching?

No, and I will tell you why in my next installment.

Lyons and Mankiewicz Score: 1.5/10

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