“If somebody’s been good to me, I will pay them back forever and ever. But if you are evil to me, I’ll get you either in this life or the next one.” — Cindy Adams in “Gossip.”
The glossy and entertaining, if sometimes superficial, Showtime four-part documentary series “Gossip” might better have been titled “Big Apple Gossip from the 1970s to 2020,” as it’s not a history of the gossip column as much as it’s a biography of legendary New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, occasionally incorporating stories from a colorful cast of supporting tabloid writers who never matched Adams’ clout.
When it was announced in 2019 that Showtime would run the series directed by Jenny Carchman (who made the Emmy-winning New York Times documentary “The Fourth Estate”), the working title was “Gossip Starring Cindy Adams.”
That’s certainly more accurate, as the brassy, brash, unapologetic, polarizing and still formidable Adams gets the lion’s share of screen time over the four-episode run, through archival clips dating to the 1960s and new interviews she gives in her home office, where the walls (and the ceiling) are plastered with laminated New York Post cover stories by Adams.
“Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.” That’s the tagline Adams, now 91, has used in her column since 1979.
The documentary series stays squarely planted in late 20th and early 21st century New York City throughout. Perhaps we’ll get another series someday about the likes of Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell. (Chicago also has a rich gossip column history, from the Sun-Times’ iconic Irv Kupcinet to the Tribune’s “Inc.” column to Michael Sneed, who left the Trib for the Sun-Times in 1986 and continues to rack up the scoops.)
With crisp editing and talking-head interviews interspersed with archival footage, “Gossip” moves at a brisk pace.
We’re reminded of how the tabloid gossip biz exploded in the 1990s with juicy and lurid stories about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the Menendez brothers, John Wayne Bobbitt, Amy Fisher a.k.a. “The Long Island Lolita,” O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Woody Allen and, of course, the omnipresent Donald Trump.
We eventually flash back to the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy would send New York comedian Joey Adams on goodwill ambassador missions to Vietnam and Thailand and Iran and Indonesia — with Joey’s much younger wife Cindy accompanying him and striking up friendships with the likes of the shah of Iran and President Sukarno of Indonesia.
This led to Adams writing a book about Sukarno, appearing as a frequent guest on TV talk shows and doing feature reporting for the ABC affiliate in New York, scoring an exclusive interview for the Post with the deposed shah at a New York City hospital — and becoming the star gossip columnist for the Post.
Adams had a penchant for scoring interviews with notorious figures such as Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and disgraced first lady Imelda Marcos of the Philippines but shrugs off criticisms of softball coverage, saying, “Of course, I would be nice to them. It’s the only way I could get a story.”
By Episode 3, we’re back in the 1990s, by which time tabloid shows such as “A Current Affair” had adapted the tabloid gossip formula to television.
Still, the newspapers reigned supreme, with the Post and the Daily News providing breathless coverage of such important issues as Trump’s divorce from Ivana. (At one point, it was the front-page story in both papers for 11 STRAIGHT DAYS.)
Episode 4 takes us into the Internet age, the rise of online gossip pioneers such TMZ.com and Perez Hilton and a new age of transparency in which celebrities often post their most private moments, thus scooping the scoopers on their scoops.
The one faction we never hear from in “Gossip?” Those who have been hurt, in some cases unjustly, by gossip, whether it appeared in print or on TV or online. That’s quite the gaping hole.
“Today, everybody is doing” gossip, Adams says. “The press is everywhere. There’s no privacy, so it doesn’t have any excitement anymore.”
And yet we still see Adams visiting with friends, out on the town and working the phones in her home office.
Only in New York, kids, only in New York.