As we look at the myriad choices cable tv offers us, we should be thrilled with our bounty. But on closer inspection, we realize we just have more trash, not choice. The disintegration of American taste is heading towards its nadir. The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and the History Channel, to mention a few, have fallen on hard times, as evidenced by their cheap appeals to the underbelly of the middle class. Discovery gives us thought-destroying junk like AMERICAN CHOPPERS, DIRTY JOBS, and AMERICAN GUNS. TLC challenges us with KATE PLUS 8 (Yes, she will never go away!), 19 KIDS AND COUNTING, and shows about dwarfs, obseity, hoarding, you name it. And the HITLER, OOPS, HISTORY CHANNEL gives us PAWN STARS and HAIRY BIKERS.
Thank heavens for my DVR.
But perhaps the most depressing downgrade is the "classic" mode presented by the premium channels (for which you pay a premium price). HBO and SHOWTIME seem to be the biggest offenders. Though they do offer some excellent documentaries, their historical dramas are often absurd. Take Showtime's THE TUDORS, if you can. There's not much history here or even solid drama, especially when you remember PBS masterpieces such as THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII or ELIZABETH with the unsurpassed Glenda Jackson in the title role. These were elaborate, beautifully written, superbly acted series. The recent THE TUDORS offered lots of glamour, sex, violence, and little else. The historical inacuracies are blatantly laughable. The casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a slight but talented actor who had starred as Elvis Presley, worked in the opening season. But most of us know that Henry may have once been a handsome bloke. That's not the Henry we see in Holbein's famous portrait. As he desperately ran through his six wives, his size bloated due to excesses, wounds, and gout. Little of this shows in the Showtime fun and games show.
The most recent hysterical history is Showtime's THE BORGIAS, which at least mirrors some of the excesses of the Papacy under that infamous family. Yet even here the emphasis is not on dirty politics as much as it is on Borgia bedding, whether its the Pope and his mistress, his sons and their mistresses, cardinals and their doxies, all in lascivious detail. Really, both THE TUDORS and THE BORGIAS are little more than dressy soft porn.
On a slightly better level, HBO's ROME presented strong drama and spectacle but perhaps again overdid it in the sex and violence areas.
But perhaps the biggest recent historical blunder is SPARTACUS, STARZ' stab at making something sleazier than THE BORGIAS and THE TUDORS. They achieve their goal with wretched acting (Xena the warrior princess is on hand), cheap looking sets and costumes, and lots of flesh, both female and male. Also in the mix is abundant sadism, torture, and bloodshed. What's wrong with this? Nothing, if that's all you want. Think back to the historical Spartacus, the subject of drama and ballet and especially Stanley Kubrick's epic film from 1960. Kubrick presented an intelligent drama with superb performances from the likes of Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Laurence Olivier (all in one incredible scene). Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons are also excellent.
There should be a warning label on this "historical" series: NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH THE CLASSIC VERSIONS!