Courtly Jester

Midway through the fourth and concluding hour of the new Ken Burns mini-series, I began to wonder if there weren’t, perhaps, too many pictures of Mark Twain – more than 600 stills from a hundred different archives, and almost all of them iconic, as if the white suit, the bandit’s mustache, and the cloud of hair were posing for a postage stamp. We see him in Hartford, in Europe, and in bed; eating oysters, drinking champagne, and jumping ship; in front of monuments, behind desks, chatting up the riffraff rich, or plunged in gloomy solitude, a very long way from the great brown river, “an insane thought” in “an empty space.” Three children and his cherished wife have predeceased him, and still he is always available to reporters for a wisecrack, between flashbulb photo opportunities, about Congress and school boards and the Boxer Rebellion, like Henry Kissinger or Mick Jagger.

“Mark Twain” was clearly a Samuel Clemens performance, a road-show stand-up persona born on the Mississippi, where the 24-year-old had been a steamboat pilot, and perfected on the lecture circuit to which the adult novelist was forever reluctantly returning when his Hartford mansion needed a new wing, his royalties were exhausted, his inventions and investments didn’t pan out, or his printing business went bankrupt. “I perceived that a man, in America, is a failed boy,” Hakim Felix Ellellou told us in John Updike’s African novel, The Coup. And so it was with Twain, a case of arrested development. Trapped inside that white suit and those scarlet socks was Huck Finn, unable to light out for the territories. Or was he hiding?

Skedaddle was the word he used to describe his secession from hostilities after a brief stint in a Confederate militia in 1861. With older brother Orion, Sam “skedaddled” west by stagecoach from Hannibal, Missouri, to Virginia City, Nevada, and Calaveras County, California, to prospect for gold, silver, and frogs. There, around a campfire, his boyhood games of piracy and Robin Hood met the tall tale and the demotic idiom. By way of Honolulu, the Holy Land, and The Innocents Abroad, he graduated from Artemus Ward to Horace Greeley and William Dean Howells. For some reason, Ken Burns omits his Washington, D.C., service as secretary to a senator, as he will neglect to mention Twain’s ludicrous book on Joan of Arc. We find Sam next in upstate New York, courting Olivia and gentility, naming The Gilded Age and also enjoying it – the first home in Hartford with a private phone, the first novelist to use a typewriter – building a mansion and writing best-sellers. Monday night’s two hours take us to the American publication of Huckleberry Finn in 1885. He is 50 years old and rich.

After which it would be impossible to skedaddle from diphtheria, epilepsy, spinal meningitis, $200,000 of debt, his volcanic temper, and his hatred of God. One of the expert talking heads, Arthur Miller, tells us that the better the writer, the worse he is as a businessman, suffering from “excess of imagination.” Another, William Styron, speculates knowledgeably about black depressions. A third, Russell Banks, my favorite member of the Burns Greek chorus, looks at the man in the white suit, the quintessential American writer of “race and space,” and sees someone trying not to kill himself. Meanwhile, before and after Ron Powers, Hal Holbrook, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Hamlin Hill, and Dick Gregory, between the piano music we’ve come to expect from Burns (including ragtime) and some surprising guitar riffs (“O Holy Night” for instance), the African-American scholar Jocelyn Chadwick and the African-American novelist David Bradley meditate on the meaning of Twain’s “unlearning” and of Huck’s decision to go to hell with Jim.

This breaks the heart. So does Mark Twain. So what if he never wrote a novel about adult love? So what if it was all downhill after Huck, for the writer and the writing? So what if the white suit was the boy’s disguise, the cracker-barrel surrogate sent out into the world like an ice-cream truck or an ambulance, to jingle and wail? Huck ought to have been enough, at least until Toni Morrison came along to fill in the blanks in our imagination of a darker self, to paint us with blood.

Imagine That (January 8; 8 to 8:30 p.m.; NBC) gives the agreeable Hank Azaria his own sitcom, in which his marital troubles with lawyer wife Jayne Brook suggest comedy sketches for the TV show he helps to write along with Katey Sagal, Joshua Malina, Suzy Nakamura, and Julia Schultz. You will like all of these people enough to wish that their series improves on its so-so pilot. Philly (January 8; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) tries to startle us into sentience with a triple dose of guest stars: Ossie Davis, who doesn’t want Kim Delaney’s help defending himself in court; Red Buttons, who wants his diamonds back no questions asked; and Judd Hirsch, as a wayward rabbi whose son has been arrested for smuggling a suitcase full of ecstasy into the City of Brotherly Love. All this inclines rather more to the sentimental than we expect from a Steven Bochco show, but they need to do something to improve the disappointing ratings.

An Ordinary Crime (January 10; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) follows producer Ofra Bikel into a North Carolina prison, where she finds a young black man serving 32 to 43 years for the crime of having the same first name as someone else who actually confessed to the crime but wasn’t believed by law-enforcement agencies with an investment in the original conviction. It seems almost retro of Bikel to continue to care about miscarriages of justice in our brave new world of military tribunals, but she also seems to be the only place left to go for redress of grievance.

The Magnificent Ambersons (January 13; 8 to 11 p.m.; A&E), directed by Alfonso Arau from the Booth Tarkington novel and the Orson Welles screenplay, stars Madeleine Stowe, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Gretchen Mol, Bruce Greenwood, Jennifer Tilly, James Cromwell, and Dina Merrill in the turn-of-the-century Freudian soap about rich privilege going downwardly mobile unto its just comeuppance. Not bad, but even the botched/butchered 1942 Welles version was an improvement on a novel that didn’t really deserve a movie in the first place.

Monday Night Mayhem (January 14; 9 to 11 p.m.; TNT), with John Turturro as Howard Cosell, John Heard as Roone Arledge, Nicholas Turturro as Chet Forte, Kevin Anderson as Frank Gifford, Brad Beyer as Don Meredith, Eli Wallach as ABC president Leonard Goldenson, and Jay Thomas as NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, is a broad absurdist inside-story look at Monday Night Football back when it seemed to matter, with insecurities as rampant as the booze, the babes, and the betting. Patti LuPone doesn’t have enough to do as Cosell’s wife, Emmy. On the other hand, we see more than enough to make us cringe at everybody else, especially Chad L. Coleman’s O. J. Simpson. Aficionados will want to compare J. Turturro’s Cosell with Jon Voight’s in Ali. The rest of us will finally figure out where ESPN’s SportsCenter came from, not to mention all those pregame testosterone shouting matches, after which the games themselves taste like Mister Softees.

Mark Twain
Monday and Tuesday, January 14 and 15; 8 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13.

Courtly Jester