It’s not that I object to eighteen hours from Ken Burns on Jazz. They are all of them absorbing and some of them superb – Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington on Tuesday, January 9; Bessie Smith and Benny Goodman on Wednesday, January 10; Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald on Monday, January 22; Miles Davis and Charlie Parker on Wednesday, January 24 – and there is as much music as there is talk, which already improves on his Baseball series, in which we got far too much mystical guff about fathers and sons, exile and return, and stealing home with Peter Pan in cleats.
Not that jazz doesn’t bring out the mystical and pedantic in some of these talkers. They are insisting on an importance already well established. It’s as if they thought Ken Burns were their last chance to generalize about culture, geography, and race relations. Wynton Marsalis has more opinions than Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch combined, which I would have thought impossible. Gerald Early sees the big picture but makes a bigger deal out of too many footnotes. Nat Hentoff, Margo Jefferson, and Gary Giddins don’t feel this strenuous need to work too hard. Like me, they’d rather look at the old tinted pictures of Storyville in New Orleans and listen to the ragtime and the blues and just sit there amazed at Sidney Bechet. And Burns and Lynn Novick have rounded up the usual glamorous suspects for the voice-overs, from Philip Bosco and Matthew Broderick to Charles Durning and Derek Jacobi to Samuel L. Jackson and Cherry Jones to Eriq LaSalle and Delroy Lindo to Joe Morton and Studs Terkel. A Burns mini-series is always part A-list cocktail party and part remedial seriousness.
Nor am I churlish enough to resent the usual accessories: a book from Knopf, a boxed set of CDs, a home-video set in a special slipcase, and an Internet Website. These, too, we’ve come to expect, and if they weren’t around we’d have reason to wonder if the event itself were as epochal as it’s supposed to be. If it doesn’t have a Website, it’s only television.
But I do wonder about ten nights and eighteen hours, even for a project deserving of such time. Can public television really afford it? And by affording it, I don’t mean the megabucks. General Motors is obscenely profitable enough to keep Ken Burns going until the twenty-second century. But can public television afford the time? Think of all the independent films and documentaries that we won’t see while we are listening to Wynton Marsalis, from producers and directors less well connected and more trouble-making than Burns is – presentations that might have ruffled feathers, stepped on toes, and grabbed some throats that needed it, on subjects that might make GM uncomfortable. It’s the same way I feel about all those hours of doo-wop during pledge periods. It’s called playing safe.
What a mouthful we now have before we ever get to the production: “ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre’s American Collection.” The production – and a handsome one it is, too – happens to be an energetic pass at The American, the 1877 Henry James novel in which, not for the last time, a barbarian America will discover a decadent Europe, while everyone behaves badly no matter how refined their feelings are. But it takes us longer than it should to start processing Matthew Modine as Christopher Newman, with a mustache, wearing dove-colored gloves, because we’re stuck thinking about petroleum companies, megamergers, and the corporate sponsorship of public television, as if Henry James were being brought to us in a T-shirt with a logo, like a college-football bowl game.
Still, when Modine’s Newman arrives in Paris from California in 1868, he is leaving behind the washtubs, the yellow soap, and the railroads that made him so much money to suck up some certified culture. Never mind that he is forever insisting he knows nothing about art, and even prefers the careful copies the young ladies are painting to the originals they squint at on the walls of the Louvre. Just in case we were in danger of missing the point, someone explains: “You are the great Western Barbarian stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing awhile at this poor effete Old World, and then swooping down on it.” (In the novel, the someone who explained this was Mrs. Tristram. But since she’s been downsized in the television production, one of the de Bellegardes says it, instead.) Doesn’t it sound like a sly description of ExxonMobil?
Actually, I don’t believe for a minute that Matthew Modine could have made much money at anything but acting. He is always too surprised, even shocked, and maybe feckless to persuade us that he’d drive a hard bargain. Thus, when he is called upon to do so in the last twenty minutes of The American, we are disappointed rather than appalled. He seemed like such a nice young man.
But back to Paris and the Louvre. Almost immediately, Newman is attracted to one of the young-lady copyists, with the wonderful name of Noémie Nioche. So was I. She’s played by Eva Birthistle and is exactly the sort of French sauce you’d want in your garret. Buy her paintings and you buy her, which Newman does. But then, across a crowded room, he sees Claire de Cintré (Aisling O’Sullivan), a pale moon in widow’s weeds whose first marriage was so dreadful that she can’t bear to be touched. In falling for such a basket case of orchids and lilies, Newman will undo himself. She is one masterpiece that American money can’t buy. Or so her mother thinks.
The mother! Diana Rigg is so good as Madame de Bellegarde – also a widow, also well out of a dreadful marriage, although how she got out of it is the novel’s second-ugliest secret – that she should have been in the book. I mean, Diana Rigg on the screen is better than her character on the page, as if she had stage-managed all the tragic trappings of the Oresteia to camouflage an aristocratic pretension almost as mean-minded as Newman’s washtub money-grubbing. Who do these people think they are, sitting around in their dark overstuffed rooms like so many sticks of antique furniture, bartering their sexuality for social position, their blue blood having long ago congealed? It’s not as if anything they ever painted made it to the Louvre.
Brenda Fricker knows. Fricker plays Mrs. Bread, a mere servant but also, of course, the keeper and the spiller of the secrets. And Andrew Scott has his suspicions. He plays Valentin, the hot-headed younger son for whom being a de Bellegarde means going penniless. Although he inherits Noémie when Newman dumps her to pursue Claire, he’ll die in a duel for his trouble. But already I start to spill the beans like Brenda. It should be enough for you to know that there are horses, geese, nuns, blackmail, even murder. Paul Unwin directs from a teleplay by Michael Hastings, and Alec McCowen, for no good reason, is the voice of Henry James.
Higher Love (january 2; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Starz!) is an extended whimsy about an English family that can no longer afford its estate in Northern California, what Rufus Sewell intends to do about it (either marry a very rich Minnie Driver, sell off the wine cellar and open a manganese mine, or both), what his uncle Nigel Hawthorne does to thwart him (sit on top of a Greek column like a Hindu sadhu), and why his younger brother Michael Rodgers would rather live in the woods. Much eccentric behavior will end up with an enema and a guitar.
Black Scorpion (starting January 5; 8 to 9 p.m.; Sci Fi), from no less than Roger Corman, is the latest original series on the Sci Fi Channel, with Michelle Lintel as an angry cop by day who morphs at night into a black-leather superheroine out of the comic-book pages of, well, Victoria’s Secret, to smite baddies like Adam West as Breathtaker, Frank Gorshin as Clockwise, Soupy Sales as Professor Prophet, and Lou Ferrigno as Slave Master. There are also Bad Girls with names like Vapor, Mist, Pollutia, Medusa, and Aftershock, almost every one of them played by a former Playboy Playmate. I kid you not, although the series certainly will.
Bob Newhart: The Last Sane Man (January 7; 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E) devotes a surprising amount of time to a comedian who would always have preferred Las Vegas stand-up to network sitcoms; who is, to this day, long after he finally left his parents’ house at the age of 32, still lacking in confidence, still uncomfortable with kissing and hugging scenes, still, well, tight in the vicinity of the sphincter. Some terrific snippets, and the on-camera talk by Suzanne Pleshette, Dick Martin, and Steven Wright is also sharp. And imagine a lifelong friendship with Don Rickles.
The Lot (January 7; 10 to 10:30 p.m.; AMC) returns with thirteen new episodes that make gentle fun of Hollywood in the Golden Age, which I take to be the late thirties, with Holland Taylor as the Hedda Hopper gossipeuse; Victor Raider-Wexler as the studio boss who has to deal with writers, actors, and also Hitler; Kim Rhodes as the requisite wow; Linda Cardellini (Freaks & Geeks) as the mixed-up wannabe; François Giroday as the tailor with a dark secret; plus Sara Botsford, Jonathan Frakes, Stephanie Faracy, and many others, all playing it for broad laughs.
A ten-part documentary series by Ken Burns, January 8, 9, 10, 15, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, and 31; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.
A Masterpiece Theatre presentation, directed by Paul Unwin; teleplay by Michael Hastings based on the Henry James novel; starring Matthew Modine; Wednesday, January 3; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13.