Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Soporific Values of PBS by Anthony McCarthy

Sitting with a convalescent a number of evenings, I was reminded just how god-awful PBS entertainment programming has become. Foyles War? Inspector Lindley*? On our local affiliate they’re showing Miss Marple. If there have been more than two series of Miss Marple made to please what they condescendingly believe the American audience wants, please point it out so it can be avoided.

Is there Brit kitsch so bad that they won’t show it on some Yank public TV station? And where is the American produced stuff they were promising us a while ago? Has anyone seen anything produced in America for PBS in fresh memory? Wait. Cancel that. Do we need a clone of CSI dressed in tweed and elbow patches?

While sitting through one piece of Brit trash recently, I was reminded of a tiresome joke repeated on one of the blogs a few months back about Canadian TV shows and their superior quality. It’s supposed to be ironic, trouble is, its not. Living where I do, I’ve seen a bit of Canadian stuff over the years, a lot of it back when I used to get the French language station out of Quebec. Some of it is garbage, but some is better than what you’re going to see here unless you buy it. Omerta, for example, or the wonderful English language series, Slings and Arrows**.

Slings and Arrows would be especially appropriate since its theme is a theater company that went through the motions for years, producing correct and boring productions of Shakespear and a bloated and incompetent bureaucracy more interested in sucking after funding than in fulfilling their stated purpose. You get the feeling that PBS and its affiliates wouldn’t be especially eager to explore that theme. Maybe they should notice that the incompetent financial manager has an easier job of selling the stuff when the hack-work artistic director dies and the content of their production gets shaken up.

Theater - including film, however shown - has the chance to tell about life. They have the words and actions to do that. An instrumental musician who deals mostly in abstractions, can get blown away when hearing what a single singer and piano player can do during a recital. It can change the way you see life. It rarely happens, though when it does it makes you certain that it is a useful activity. But it has to be the right singer, the right pianist and the right program of songs. Luckily, the songs, like the plays and scripts, already exist. There are writers and composers who aren’t just going through the motions, they’re generally the ones with a small audience. There are writers who are doing their part against all odds.

With the luxury of using the medium of reality, you wonder why anyone would settle on doing absolutely nothing with it at such great cost for so many years. You can understand people paying for junk if it has some novelty value or spectacle, though nothing gets older faster. That’s what fads are all about. But when a public TV system depends on those who will pay to see the same old junk and new junk of rapidly deteriorating quality, it’s already down the drain. Other than Moyers in the news and less than a handful of other news and history relates shows, PBS and public TV works against its purpose to exist.

Note: By the way, anyone else who is tempted to produce yet another mini-series glorifying Elizabeth I or the rest of her blood thirsty family should read William Cobbett’s THE HISTORY OF THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION IN ENGLAND AND IRELAND first. But for the rest of us, Cobbett’s History is a good antidote to that mildewed line of docu-drama. Note that Cobbett was, himself, a protestant.

When you cut through the establishment propaganda, the Tudor’s destruction of the medieval social support network in order to plunder it and buy support might go a long way to understanding what’s been so rotten about the Anglo-American system. They come off as sort of like the Bush Crime Family with a somewhat better record in arts patronage.

His defense of Mary as the least blood soaked and most beneficent of the Tudors and Stuarts are an interesting change from the line of lies and propaganda that started during her family’s reign and which will probably continue in the fall line up on PBS. Cobbett’s list of the hypocrisies and crimes of “That prince of hypocrites” Thomas Cranmer will come as a real shock to a lot of people brought up to their knowledge of history by PBS. Loved Glenda Jackson but Elizabeth I was no Glenda Jackson.

* That how it’s spelled? I was tempted to look it up but the effort isn’t worth it.

** The writing was great, the actors great. The three major roles played by Martha Burns, Paul Gross and Stephen Ouimette are especially good. Movies and plays about theater people are usually terrible but this series was great.

I probably shouldn’t mention it, but someone has posted the first season on You Tube.