While the movies are taking a summer break from reality, television is peering into America's soul. Sure, the network offerings are typical gung-ho exploitative fluff (she's not only an embassy worker, she's hot!). But that's why John Walson invented cable television in the first place: so that one day we would have the History Channel and A&E and a host of others to inform Americans about a subject we know surprisingly little about: our own history.
Three major historical documentaries, a nonfiction TV movie, a mystery and two books that touch on America's influence will address the fundamental questions: who we are, how we got here and what it means to be an American. Each uses personal stories as a window on the larger American phenomenon. While less exacting than historians Will and Ariel Durant (though more accessible), together these programs represent a multifaceted examination that should jolt the brains of legions of couch potatoes, perhaps all the way to the bookstore.
In May, a heavily promoted History Channel documentary based on Joseph Ellis's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers (Vintage) arrives at a divisive moment for the Constitution, as various groups claim the "correct" interpretation of the framers' intentions. It may come as a relief to non-ideologues everywhere that, as the program reveals, "The men who drafted the Constitution soon found themselves bitterly divided over the role the federal government should play in the lives of its citizens." Sound familiar?
The book's portrayal of these titanic figures on a human scale is what originally convinced Susan Werbe, v-p for historical programming at the History Channel, to buy the book pre-Pulitzer: "We're used to icons and monuments and marble statues, but these were actually pretty racy guys." While reverent oil paintings tend to depict the framers conversing politely over tea in a drawing room, the reality involved more quotidian techniques such as character assassination and scandalmongering.
The program, like the book, demonstrates how the Constitution is a living document that can withstand constant reinterpretation over succeeding generations. The framers, for example, never envisioned political parties. In an election, the president was the one who got the most votes and the vice-president was the one with the second largest tally. "You have a situation where John Adams won by a single vote," said Werbe, "and had Thomas Jefferson as his v-p, a man who had startlingly different views."
An impressive line-up of stars, including Rob Lowe, James Woods and Hal Holbrook, portrays the "brothers." Author Ellis shares screen time with fellow Pulitzer winners David McCullough, Jack Rakove and Gordon S. Wood, all of whom have the opportunity to share their expertise (and perhaps sell a few books). Vintage will put special displays in stores, but the bestselling book has been shipping a steady volume so there won't be a special tie-in edition. The program, however, will make use of the book cover art and will also announce that the title is now available in paperback.
A&E plans to show how Las Vegas has been at the center of American politics since its founding. Las Vegas: The Money and the Power, based on the book by Sally Denton and Roger Morris (Vintage), looks at the city "almost as a shadow capital of America," according to Amy Briamonte of Termite Arts, which produced the show. She explains, "We show how many of the watershed moments in the last half-century were either pulled, plotted or paid for in Las Vegas." That sort of nefarious dexterity is why writer/producer Julie Harmon calls the city the "Zelig of America."
In a sense, Las Vegas is a classic American success story. In 2001, casino revenues topped $18 billion—and that's only the officially reported tally. Not bad for a town that didn't exist 60 years ago. On the other hand, Las Vegas exists largely because, once Prohibition ended, the mob needed a new way to generate and launder cash. The government allowed this because they were the only group that had any idea how to bring business to the Nevada desert.
The government also benefited from Las Vegas's dubious entrepreneurial spirit when it needed a place to test nuclear bombs. "Only Las Vegas could turn that into a marketing opportunity," said Harmon. Casino operators rented rooftop deck chairs and served special "atomic cocktails" to unwitting Americans as the military knowingly exposed them to toxic radiation. "Let's just say that Las Vegas is not a place where the care and feeding of one's brethren comes naturally," said Harmon.
The film gave Harmon the opportunity to re-interview subjects from the book, some of whom didn't agree with the authors' conclusions. In other cases, entirely new subjects filled out the narrative. Harmon wanted the interviews to look "like you were going to confession in Vegas." The subjects sat in front of a crushed-velvet background, practically knee-to-knee with Harmon. Eighty-three year-old former pit boss John Savage recalled the golden era: "Rat Pack, my ass! Joey Bishop was a bum who never tipped!" A&E executive producer Tamar Hacker expects a good showing: "Americans love Vegas," she noted. Authors Denton and Morris put it more bluntly: "Only Mecca inspires more pilgrims."
In June, the History Channel examines America through the eyes of three generations of New York City police officers, in a documentary based on My Father's Gun by Brian McDonald (Plume). "The unique and specific point of view gives you more of a sense of what life was really like," said Carl Lindahl, another v-p of historical programming at the History Channel. "To borrow an old quote, 'Try to appeal to everyone and you appeal to no one. Try to appeal to one man and you reach everyone.'"
An unconventional hybrid, My Father's Gun is the first real effort to promote what the History Channel calls "docu-movies." "We shoot it on film and use extensive dramatizations," explained Lindahl. More than 150 extras were employed for the re-creation of the 1904 General Slocum steamship disaster, which led to the greatest loss of life in a single incident in New York history prior to September 11. "It's not quite a TV movie, but the reenactments and scenes with dialogue [rather than voice-overs] take it to a whole new level." added Lindahl.
The History Channel first used the technique for The True Story of Black Hawk Down. Since there was no footage of the actual battle in Mogadishu, the producers re-staged portions to illustrate the experience author Mark Bowden was describing. The result was a huge rating. There are strict boundaries, however, according to Lindahl: "Movies sometimes rewrite things for dramatic effect. The History Channel doesn't do that."
Combining history and commerce, PBS has come up with a program on a subject most people know little about, except that it generally makes them squeamish. Based on Douglas Starr's book by the same name, Red Gold: The Epic Story of Blood (June) traces the history of the world's most valuable liquid through commerce and culture. Around 1660, the first recorded transfusion put calf's blood into a madman, in hope that the mild manner of the animal would be transferred to the patient. More recently, the September 11 disaster revealed flaws in the post—WWII collection system that leaves the supply alternately high and dry or wastefully glutted.
More ethically complex is the issue of blood products, which was big business up until the 1970s. In the years before, the United States had become the OPEC of plasma exports, capitalizing on new extraction technology and liberal collection laws. Prisoners were a popular source of blood, because they were a reliable population that could be used as a sort of farm for vaccine antibodies. While First World countries have since cleaned up their act, problems still exist in the Third World, where blood products are collected and often shipped to Europe and North America. To coincide with the PBS show, HarperPerennial is publishing an updated trade edition that includes a section on September 11.
For a healthy dose of the indomitable American spirit, there's no need to look further than TNT's Door-to-Door (July), based on Shelly Brady's Ten Things I Learned from Bill Porter. In the vein of Tuesdays with Morrie, Brady offers life lessons she observed as a typist for inspirational salesman Porter, who was determined to succeed despite crippling cerebral palsy and the accompanying prejudices. The project began when writer/actor William H. Macy saw a 20/20 piece in April 2000 on Porter and wanted to turn his life into a film. That interest spurred Brady to get serious about writing the book. In June, New World Library will ship 50,000 hardcover copies. The two efforts complement one another: the film is Porter's story, while the book focuses more on the wisdom Brady gleaned through her friendship with this remarkable man.
Another redemptive American crops up in Masterpiece Theater's adaptation of Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain (Viking), which airs in May. The story details the author's journey from a remote Australian town to the heart of bustling Sydney in the 1950s, where an American mining engineer helps her break free of her reserved manner—he calls it "emotional wet-weather gear." In Conway's follow-up book, True North, she goes to graduate school at Harvard and becomes the first female president of Smith College. No word yet whether Masterpiece Theatre will film the sequel.
Native Californian Elizabeth George writes such quintessentially British mysteries that she's been compared to P.D. James. In August, PBS's Mystery! series is bringing her characters to life in an adaptation of her first book, A Great Deliverance (Bantam). The dual protagonists hail from different sides of the tracks, a classic British theme that we colonials can't seem to get enough of. "Americans are fascinated with traditional class structure," said Deliverance executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "There is a myth that we don't have a class structure here; however, we do have this other system based on success—the haves and have-nots."
Bantam is reissuing a tie-in edition that should augment the cumulative sales of the 11 bestsellers in George's series, which has netted more than seven million mass market copies to date. Next summer, viewers can look forward to the next four books in the Lynley/Havers series, produced by WGBH in conjunction with the BBC.