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