The plot thickened to a fare-thee-well yesterday as the disgraced and aging former TV news anchor claimed that he had caught the eye, and perhaps the heart, of the young firecracker who had been hired as his on-air sidekick.

The TV writing legend Aaron Sorkin will be kicking himself when he hears the latest turn in the Larry Mendte-Alycia Lane saga, a performance so unexpected that it trumps any of the insightful and sometimes hilarious events in Sorkin's Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Both shows went fictionally behind the scenes of live TV productions, but neither treated the humid and paranoid narcissism that frequently rises to a deafening crescendo at local TV news operations.

Trying to deflect attention from the hard fact that he had just pleaded guilty to a felony, Mendte offered an excuse that surely induced apoplexy in the woman whom he characterized as his tormentor: She undermined him - after he dumped her.

He dumped her?

It's likely the pair did stay out late, as Mendte said, considering they didn't get off work until nearly midnight. Perhaps the out-of-town ingenue did have "long dinners" with the local legend, but can you imagine Lane, famous even before she got here for her ability to attract young hunks, going all aflutter for her 50ish coanchor?

Mendte, an award-winning writer, carefully selected the word improper, one that carries so much baggage in the Eliot Spitzer/John Edwards era, to describe the relationship. But he never spoke of an affair, not even a kiss or the passing of a delicate porcelain hand through the thinning hair that he obviously loves so much.

Makeup was on Mendte's mind yesterday.

Fox29 reporter Dave Schratweiser observed that Mendte was obviously wearing cosmetics for his court appearance. But Mendte noted strangely that after his wife, Fox29 anchor Dawn Stensland, found out about his "flirtatious" infatuation, he forbade Lane from using his office to put on her makeup.

Many TV newsrooms exemplify collegiality, but the TV news business is also rife with huge egos and, because the stakes are so low, vicious personal feuds and political infighting.

Some of the most famous incidents down the years, not only in Philadelphia but across the country, have involved older men's jealousy of their younger female coworkers.

It's not difficult to imagine Mendte struggling to hold onto his top-dog position and Lane seeking to move up after the man who hired both of them, Peter Dunn, left KYW-TV.

Word is that the station's new (and current) president and general manager, Michael Colleran, did like Lane better. But Mendte's complaint about being stripped of special projects pales in the shadow of the long list of Emmy entries he filed for himself, year after year. This year, he netted 19 nominations.

As delicious and revelatorty as Mendte's statement is, the sad paranoia and career desperation that it reveals would best be reserved for the sort of fictitious TV personality that Sorkin so elegantly created.

Mendte says the new world order is to deny, deny, deny at all costs. But celebrities caught with their fingers in the cookie jar, or drunk behind the wheel, or shacked up with some cutie have been making heartfelt confessions for years.

It seems to have worked for Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr. and Paris Hilton. But it's not likely that a confessed felon will be anchoring anybody's TV news any time soon.

Mendte, ever the careful writer, said, "I may never anchor here again," not, "I will never anchor here again."

That he's so self-deluded to think there's a snowball's chance that any reputable outfit would hire him in a position of public trust, especially after his bizarre statement yesterday, transcends juicy gossip. It's tragic.

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