The last episode of At the Movies has come and gone. There was never really another show like it, and though I'm sure there will be many attempts to revive the format, it will be difficult to recapture the same tone, and nearly impossible to meet the show's influence.
The show began on Chicago public broadcasting in 1975, as Sneak Previews. As has been documented before, the beauty of the show was its simplicity: two guys talking about movies. Well, there was equal beauty in the chemistry between those guys: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. While the name of the show changed a few times, it was the famous banter between Siskel and Ebert that drew audiences in every week (all the way to Siskel's death in 1999). They each had the kind of critical voice that is missing from so many film reviewers - namely, the ability to speak with both passion and insight in a way that does not alienate the average person. It may sound simple enough, but talking critically about art while bringing in each of these elements is very difficult. And yet they managed to do it in almost all of their reviews. It also didn't hurt that these guys weren't exactly the best of friends (for maybe most of the show's life). The most fun reviews were the ones where they each passionately argued for opposing views. It was also great fun to watch reviews of movies that they both hated.
After Siskel's death, the show did lose a lot of it's magic, which never completely returned. He was eventually replaced by Richard Roeper, who did a decent job. In 2006, though, Ebert had to leave the show for thyroid cancer treatments. A number of guest critics would join Roeper, and that was kind of fun in its own way, but due to contractual issues, Roeper left the show. ABC totally revamped At the Movies, and it became something that most fans of the show would like to forget. The new show was now geared to appeal to movie fans who maybe only read reviews from US Weekly or People magazine. Everything was super slick and "edgy." And there was very little chemistry between the new hosts, Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons. Unfortunately, the new format totally alienated the base of loyal viewers that the show had earned over the past 20 years. Ratings dropped and hate mail rose.
In 2009, the show attempted to return to the original format with new hosts Michael Phillips and AO Scott. While the rating did start to return, ABC was never really interested in the show again (probably due to the debacle of the "Bens Era") and decided to cancel it. Unfortunately, even though show had become watchable again, it was given ridiculous airtimes. And so this week the final episode aired.
I recall watching Siskel and Ebert in the mid-90s, and loving it. And that was well before I really came to love the movies. But that was the magic of the show. To this day, I can easily spend hours on the At the Movies website, where many of the show's reviews have been archived. You can also currently watch the show's last episode, which I would recommend. There is a nice retrospective piece. Perhaps one day we'll try to discuss the impact of At the Movies - both positive and negative. For now, though, we lament the end of an era.