Only in America: television drama at its very best and worst

Film Studies

I needed three TV sets the other night in America, because the three ages of television were being paraded side by side in one piece of primetime.

To start with, the CBS network gave two hours to what was either an intriguing experiment or a way of keeping in with George Clooney. About a year ago, Clooney prevailed upon ER and its network to transmit an episode "live". What that means is that, rather than shoot the episode and then edit it on videotape, everyone would join in the frantic business of shooting and transmitting at the same instant.

That requires a series of adjacent sets, so that actors can step from one to another. It may demand rapid costume changes. It means that the director and the crew have to edit as they are shooting, keeping quiet, and with the equipment out of view. It also means that "errors" must go by uncorrected. This is the way TV drama was done in the 1950s, before videotape, and when American TV still had an appetite for what we might call plays.

For some reason, Clooney (born in 1961) asked CBS to do a real "live" drama. He picked Fail-Safe, made into a movie in 1964, with Henry Fonda playing the president who, since he has accidentally nuked Moscow, volunteers to obliterate New York to show good faith. Clooney got Stephen Frears to direct - and many feel that Frears's best work is what he did for British TV (though never, I think, transmitted live. The starry cast included Richard Dreyfuss, Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Harvey Keitel, Brian Dennehy, and Clooney himself. Plus they did it in black and white, which is now the moral equivalent of technical malfunction.

Meanwhile, at TNT (one of Ted Turner's channels), there was a two-and-a-half-hour Hallmark adaptation of Don Quixote. This was typical of the big showcase events that TV liked to boast about in the 1970s and 1980s. Fittingly, it had veteran credits: the esteemed John Mortimer as writer, and Peter Yates, the 70-year-old who once did Bullitt, directing. The cast included John Lithgow as the Don, Bob Hoskins as Sancho Panza, and Vanessa Williams as Dulcinea. This would be in colour, though without the songs - some people may not know that Cervantes did not write "The Impossible Dream" - and it was set in the 1800s (as opposed to the 1600s) because - well, because it was easier.

And then, on HBO, there was the 13th and last episode in the current, and second, series of The Sopranos.

Fail-Safe was awful, slow and very boring, none of which is to be blamed on doing drama live, or on the particular actors involved. Of what I saw - I was channel-switching - only Harvey Keitel was really bad (and he can be). Richard Dreyfuss was working too hard, while people like Clooney and Dennehy were trying to relax.

It didn't matter. Nothing could have disguised the fact that Fail-Safe is from a Stone Age flatter than anything nuclear bombs might achieve. Presidents agonising over the hot button have dated very badly. We may be kidding ourselves that that situation is in the past. But the language and gravitas of Fail-Safe are fatuous, and the idea of swapping New York for Moscow is demanding of a comic approach. (A new version of the play could have an hilarious routine where the potentates argue which modern American city to sacrifice.)

Don Quixote, clearly the most expensive of the night's offerings, was lush, pretty, with clever special effects and "opportunities" for all the players. It was also a version of culture-for-the-masses which is no more. I found it nearly impossible to imagine two or three people actually staying awake through the whole thing - and then hurrying to the library to get the book. Yet there are still such nonsensical do-goody impresarios out and about in TV. As for the direction, I'll take Bullitt any day, because it's silly, cool and gripping and just the kind of thing that everyday TV was made for.

Then there's The Sopranos. I know the second series has not even started yet in Britain, and I promise to break no trust on plot-lines. I'll just say that the second series is even better, more complex, than the first. And this last episode is the best of the best: it has Tony, with food poisoning and fever dreams, so that much of the hour is his surreal fantasies - while the rest was a verdict on both The Godfather and organised crime that left me stunned. Here was the real thing, not "live" TV, but alive - the best drama in America today anywhere.

In fact, The Sopranos now is a true equivalent of the best live drama in the 1950s - I mean the original Paddy Chayefsky plays (Marty and Bachelor Party), the work of Rod Serling and Reginald Rose. This is proof that, on cable, TV can find sophisticated material and very modern forms of storytelling. I don't think Fail-Safe was ever that - or even as gripping as ordinary daily TV in October 1962. Don Quixote is a great novel, and weird TV. But The Sopranos is state-of-the-art.

'The Sopranos' returns to Channel 4 in October

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project