The Weekend's Viewing: From post-war analgesic to novelistic complexity, anyone interested in the history of American TV would have enjoyed this
America in Primetime, Sat, BBC2 // Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero, Sun, BBC2
America in Primetime contained the single best thing I've ever heard said about great television drama – seven sentences as good as seven weeks of scriptwriting masterclasses. The speaker was David Chase, creator and writer of The Sopranos, and his subject was indirection. He was explaining how his dissatisfaction with the television he was watching shaped the television he made. “People in TV always said exactly what was on their mind, especially in a family situation. But people don't. We all know that. We've all been to Thanksgiving dinners. I would say that 90 per cent of what Tony said, or Christopher, or Paulie or any of them was not the truth. If Tony says 'yes' he means 'no', if he says 'no' he means 'yes'. If Tony says, 'No... I'm in a good mood', you know someone is going down in about four seconds.” In a film eager to exhort us into retrospective admiration, full of very good writers praising the writing that inspired them, that was the line that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck. That's The Sopranos encapsulated, a drama that trusted the audience to do something they do every day of their lives. Read between the lines.
The first of a four-part series on American television – made by PBS but repackaged for British audiences by Alan Yentob – “Man of the House” focused on the depiction of masculinity in popular shows, from the now risible simplicities of Father Knows Best to the twisted patriarchy of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad. And it was, inevitably, a somewhat triumphalist account of what Yentob described as “the most competitive television market in the world”, aware of the global reach of the industry's products and bound up in a nostalgia that wasn't likely to be shared by all British viewers. When David Chase said that “we've all been to Thanksgiving dinners”, he only underlined a sense that the film was addressed most directly to those who, like him, had personal memories of watching The Honeymooners as a child.
But anyone interested in the maturing of American television – its voyage from post-war analgesic to the novelistic complexity of the best cable shows – would have found something to enjoy here. Pretty much everyone who's anybody in serious American television was here to offer an opinion – Mad Men's Matthew Weiner, Carl Reiner (who wrote the groundbreaking Dick Van Dyke Show), Norman Lear of All in the Family and Alan Ball, who created Six Feet Under and True Blood. Even David Lynch showed up, testifying to the consoling nature of Cold War sitcoms, which distracted audiences from the threat of nuclear extinction with impossibly perfect nuclear families. And there are unexpected genealogies too, with Chase, for example, tracing Tony Soprano's self-pitying rants directly back to Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners. One quibble though: The Cosby Show's highest ratings figure was 82 million viewers. Breaking Bad's best showing, by contrast, was just 1.9 million. Some exploration of the dissolving of the mass audience would have been interesting, and perhaps uncomfortably instructive about what had to happen before television could really mature.
In Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero, the stand-up comedian sets out to redress what he sees as a historical injustice: the comparative obscurity of Alfred Russel Wallace, whose writings on evolutionary theory finally prodded Darwin into publication. Why don't we talk about Wallaceism today? Because, as Wallace himself generously conceded, he hadn't properly grasped how the mechanism might operate. He's a very good hero for all that, a self-made scholar-adventurer. Bailey goes where he went and does what he did, from eating durian fruit (“It's like somebody's put a quiche in a car and left it for four days”) to catching butterflies. He looks wild-haired and flushed throughout, which might be down to the humidity and heat but I suspect has quite a bit to do with simple excitement.
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