Gavin and Stacey: Season One (2007)

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James Corden and Ruth Jones are not only very, very funny and talented, but very clever, as anyone would know who watched their unexpected BBC blockbuster Gavin and Stacey

The story behind the show feels like a seen-it-before chick-flick plot: Gavin is a straight-laced young Essex businessman of whom you get the feeling he hasn’t been in too many relationships.  Stacey is a bubbly Welsh serial monogamist…with five broken engagements to prove it.  But because their two companies work together, they talk on the phone all the time, and a relationship blooms which leads to…well, it’s no spoiler to say that the first of the three seasons ends with Gavin and Stacey’s wedding. So far, so typical.  But Mr. Corden and Ms. Jones, who created the program and wrote every episode, ditch all stagey pretense.  They understand how real relationships play out, and how they’re based on getting to know each other rather than instant love at first sight.  They understand how people who’ve known and loved each other for years interact, have conflicts, resolve conflicts, not with gestures and dramatic dialogue but with tacit, well-read signs and words.  And they know the true preciousness of all the little moments in car rides and drinks at the local bar and even just going out shopping when it’s with good company.  The humor of Gavin and Stacey comes from its reality: we watch it and recognize our family, our in-laws, our day-to-day life and how full of vigor it can be…and how quietly ridiculous and eccentric we all are in our little ways.

I also said that Mr. Corden and Ms. Jones were very clever.  They recognized a fact I’ve known for a long while: the supporting characters in a TV show or movie–but usually TV shows more often—are more interesting and memorable than the protagonists.  So giving the leads to young, good-looking Mathew Horne and Joanna Page, both excellent straight men (straight man and woman), Mr. Corden and Ms. Jones play Gavin and Stacey’s best friends, boozing, sex-minded sports nut Smithy and tattooed, promiscuous, sharp-tongued Nessa.  And they fill up the rest of the cast with fine character actors, above all Rob Brydon, whom I had never heard of before but now (akin to when I saw Love Actually and discovered Bill Nighy) want to watch every single project he ever worked on–even when he’s serious, Mr. Brydon’s Uncle Bryn is funny…the way my uncles are funny without even trying.

The two ensuing seasons of Gavin and Stacey which I have not yet seen (and were even bigger than the first–it went out on top) apparently brought the focus on the other characters more.  But Gavin and Stacey are the fulcrum and the catalyst for so many great moments…Bryn and his beloved Sat Nav, a church sermon on sandwiches, Bryn’s encounter with a magician, Smithy hosting trivia night, a marriage proposal unlike any other…and always the feeling that this could happen to us.

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If the Modern Had a Birth, There Must Have Been a Family

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Modern Family winning the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for its debut 2009-2010 season is one of the many great pages in recent television history, and probably a fitting way to cap off the decade. It is not just that the show is unfailingly uproarious for reasons I shall soon delve into, but also that Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan have taken transatlantic television a step further.

The 2000s are arguably the greatest decade for American TV, a decade which mixed the experimentalism of its early 1950s days with confidence in commerciality—a combination distinctly lacking from the 1960s to the 1990s. After the so-called “golden age,” the American networks adopted a business model based on how blocks of commercial advertising, not sponsorship of individual programs, made them the most money…which made sense since you were being paid by more people to reach a potentially mass audience, the same theory behind the Super Bowl. However, to attract the mass audience, formulaic, inoffensive programming was created: I can’t remember the number of Westerns running in 1960, but it was a LOT, and then came the procedural, the family-friendly sitcom, the primetime soap in the 80s, shows designed to continue for 20-25 episodes a year and draw viewers back no matter how repetitive they became. Even shows like Hill Street Blues became trapped in convention despite efforts at constructing a new formula.

Meanwhile, in England, the BBC was creating innovative shows with very short seasons and a willingness to offend and play with convention—partly through the freedom which comes with a state TV tax to be sure, but partly through not underestimating intelligence and tastes, because deep down, every human being is attracted to the new. This whole process took a while…but ITV and other commercial networks in the UK copied the BBC because that was what people wanted to see…and when HBO got rich enough to produce original programs, they could get away with copying the BBC model because they didn’t have commercials either…and as THESE shows skyrocketed in accolades and popularity, the other American networks began to catch on. Hence the decade of The Wire, Mad Men, Lost, Deadwood, The Shield, Weeds, Arrested Development, and things like John From Cincinnati which people suddenly wanted to take a chance on.

As usually happens on this blog, I haven’t said much about Modern Family yet, but I’m getting there right now. For all of the greatness of the new television, domination of this formula would be like having nothing but Bergman, Fellini, and Godard playing at multiplexes forever. They’re beautiful and everybody should definitely see them, but we also need to have some fun! The best of both worlds would be a hybrid which respected the conventions of American pop television but incorporated the strides of the last fifteen years. Arrested Development, one of the greatest shows of my lifetime, came so very, very close…but it was still too scale-tipping away from the mass audience. America has gotten used to sitcom families whose behavior, even when annoying, is endearing, whose quarrels are either comically resolved or provide fodder for “very special episodes,” who were all good-hearted at the end of the day. The Bluths were an assortment of very despicable people whose conflicts were outrageous, who broke laws, who contemplated incest, and whose only all-out decent member called up weapon after weapon but could never bring them in line. Arrested Development was about the triumph of moral anarchy in a direct assault on family values. It tried to destroy the sitcom paradigm in one titanic swoop.

Modern Family, on the other hand, subverts the paradigm while respecting it. Just as in everything from Father Knows Best to The Cosby Show to the innumerable sitcoms about blended families, the Pritchett-Dunphy clan live an upper-middle-class (accent on upper) life, and the three couples with children are very happy together, and still further the issues which would make “very special episodes” are far removed. But that’s where the similarities end. As someone who grew up in a large but close and loving family, I can attest to the pleasure and sometimes necessity of really not liking your parents or your children, of snarkily needling them on their flaws and irritable traits, of clashing with others because of fundamental differences in character which emerge only when you live in the same house, and not in broadly drawn Neil Simon fashion but in things like how important it is to have a state-of-the-art TV and whether or not to go to the lavender plantation and similar locales day after day. Modern Family celebrates the incompatibilities and miniature culture clashes and sarcasms which go part and parcel with loving your spouse and children and parents and such in a way no other sitcom has really dared to do before…we can show the kids, especially the teenagers, at war, but never everybody finding points of disagreement in just about any situation. And what makes Modern Family work is the realization that on the small scale of everyday life, this is drama enough! No wonder a Dutch TV crew has gotten it (for the mockumentary conceit). Everybody should get this! Couple it with intelligent jokes definitely not written for the LCD and a liberal dose of physical comedy, and we’ve got a gold mine.

I don’t want to break down the first season episode by episode, because there are no real off shows even when a plot strand falls flat. But what I realized in watching the entire season was how Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) are really the straight man and woman to the jokers of Jay’s offspring…and this also lends credibility to their marriage. Jay and Gloria each have a rock-solid core set of values, a willingness to change when confronted with the necessity to do so, and common sense they frequently share with the analytical, fussy Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), free-wheeling but overly protective Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), perfectionist Claire (Julie Bowen), and sublimely idiotic Phil (Ty Burrell, who deserves something for being so incredibly out of it week after week).

Three last things. I love the portrayal of Mitchell and Cameron’s relationship, which is never made a big deal of and actually is recognizably parallel to the long marriage of Phil and Claire. While Jay and Gloria are so similar, the other two couples have noticeable strengths and weaknesses which their partners complement fully.

The children on the show are, as common to other such shows, funny but overshadowed by their parents…although Nolan Gould, who is actually in MENSA, is great as the youngest Dunphy, Luke, who runs through glass doors, locks himself in dog transporters, and cannot throw a baseball.

And I wasn’t going to name individual episodes, but the pilot is a fantastic introduction, “Great Expectations” features two really good guest stars in Elizabeth Banks (as Mitchell and Cameron’s longtime wild-child friend) and Edward Norton (as the bassist from Spandau Ballet…yes, really), and “The Incident,” “Airport 2010,” and “Hawaii” are note-perfect episodes which bring out the show’s genius: long stretches of realistic, sharp-tongued conflict culminating in moments where the family’s essential love for each other shines through…and then we laugh some more.

New friendships with TWO different people who have lived in Shanghai and the page-turning highs of Man’s Fate led me to pick up a few more books about the west-east relationship. For one, I revisited Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography Hermit of Peking, a story no screenwriter or dramatist could ever have devised. When given a copy of the unpublished, just-discovered memoirs of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the legendary scholar and historian who gave Oxford a magnificent library of Chinese texts, Sir Hugh’s amazement at the obscenity present in the memoirs led him on an epic search to find the truth about Sir Edmund’s life. The result is not so much a full biography as a piece of fascinating detective work which historians dream of. Presenting the story both chronologically and thematically, including an annoying habit of dropping hints of revelations to come which smacks too much of pulp fiction once in a while, Sir Hugh makes a startling argument on the factuality of both the memoirs and all of Sir Edmund’s work in history and academics. Hermit of Peking is entertaining, but it also carries a sharp warning of how easy it is to create something unreal and pass it off as the genuine article…and how easy anyone can be taken in.

And after almost a decade of hearing people talk now and then about the great Cuban-Italian writer Italo Calvino, I finally got my feet wet with his short 1974 novel Invisible Cities. This is a GEM. But be warned: the plot of the novel is the conscientious evolution of mankind, the meanings and beliefs and desires which bind us together, the way we deal with our mortality, and how we communally look at the world…and it is told through a series of one or two page snippets where Marco Polo describes the cities of the empire to Kublai Khan. No, they don’t sound like they go together when I put it that way. But start flipping through the book, be seduced by Signor Calvino’s descriptions of cities suspended over mountain passes, cities perched on the edge of desert and ocean, cities with exact copies built underground in which the dead are able to perform the functions they dreamed of when they were living, of cities where every action is reflected in the stars. Sooner or later, you will find yourself moved by how these dry factual statements sneak up on you and tear at the core of what makes you a feeling creature, of why you love and why you hate and why you remember and why you persevere. When it’s over, you’ll be sad, wishing there could have been more. You’ll also want to go to Venice, but that’s understandable in any case.

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno…

Then make them endure…

Give them space.”

A lesson for not only those who build cities, but those who seek to build institutions, dreams, lives with those they love.

Finally, I revisited the two albums Bob Dylan recorded with Daniel Lanois: Oh Mercy (1989) and the Album of the Year-winning Time Out of Mind (1997). On both records, Mr. Lanois surrounds Mr. Dylan with ringing guitars, echoing organs and keyboards, drumming kept in the background but firm, and recording which brings out the ravaged, prophetic, elder statesman qualities of Mr. Dylan’s voice while keeping his grip on melody—or what’s left of it. But on listening to them back to back, a clear divide emerges. The chapter on Oh Mercy was my favorite part of Mr. Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles, an unflinching confession of confusion and self-disgust turning to acceptance and rebirth, midwifed by the difficult Mr. Lanois. And as befit someone who’d gotten sloppy as a poet and composer, the songs, though very good, are all short and simplistic, Mr. Dylan choosing only a set number of usually repetitive words to convey an unambiguous idea, the two exceptions being “Man in the Long Black Coat” and “Most of the Time.” But by Time Out of Mind, having survived serious illness and gotten back out in touring and reimmersion in folk and blues, Mr. Dylan produces what is basically Blood on the Tracks Part II, but two decades on, the desperation and anguish have only increased with awareness of mortality…and yet the desire for love and belief in love remains undiminished, with “To Make You Feel My Love” being his most sincere love song ever with the possible exception of “Sara.” There are songs on Time Out of Mind I’d like to hear forever: the break-up ballads “Standing in the Doorway” and “Trying to Get to Heaven,” the cool, twisting rocker “Cold Irons Bound,” and “Not Dark Yet,” one of those rare bits of musical perfection we come across now and again. Mr. Dylan’s confidence, however, also produced the 16-minute why-doesn’t-this-stupid-song-end “Highlands,” which has none of the positive qualities of the earlier epics (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”) and should have been replaced by the great, valedictory outtake “Red River Shore.” Why Mr. Lanois couldn’t put his foot down there is a mystery.

Three Deaths and Two Magicians, or, “There’s Ian Anderson, and Then There’s Everybody Else” (Ryan Atkinson)

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Match me...

Tony Curtis (1925-2010)…no, scratch those dates. It is impossible for me to accept them as real. In my mind and for all eternity, the man born Bernard Schwartz is forever in his early thirties and forever a tall, dark, handsome man. No silver hair and gratuitous appearances in musicals based on his greatest performance. Mr. Curtis was, is, will be an icon. He falls into the same category as Tyrone Power, Rock Hudson, Ryan O’Neal (to a greatly lesser but still there extent), and now Brad Pitt…jealousy-inducing leading men who, when given the chance, have top-notch acting talent. My mother, my best friend’s mother…I think every mother of people in my generation had a crush on Mr. Curtis. In Mom’s case, it comes from films like Houdini and Operation Petticoat where he played that conventional, jealousy-inducing leading man or second lead to a higher wattage star. But when I think of Mr. Curtis, there are three pictures which always come to mind, and in none of them does he simply get to stand around being debonair and walk off with Janet Leigh or Natalie Wood or Claudia Cardinale or whoever.

53 years later, Sweet Smell of Success remains one of American cinema’s darkest portraits of human nature, and while a chunk of the credit lies in Burt Lancaster’s terrifying, sexually-perverted, sadistic performance as the Winchell-esque columnist, it would have been far less effective if Mr. Curtis, who has the bulk of screen time, had not been so perfectly despicable as the ambitious PR man Sidney Falco, bullying those who are weaker and kowtowing to an embarrassing, self-loathing degree when around Mr. Lancaster’s Hunsecker. It takes an unafraid actor with self-confidence and a refusal to lapse into self-parody to play such a despicable figure, and Mr. Curtis excels in making an audience both hate and pity him. Three years after that in 1960, Mr. Curtis received featured billing in the supporting role of Antoninus in the greatest of all the Cinemascope historical epics, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Dalton Trumbo’s dialogue for Antoninus is embarrassingly bad, and Mr. Curtis, who made no effort to try to disguise his natural New York accent, never sounds convincing playing the intelligent slave, the “singer of songs” and magician with a Vegas-style sleight of hand. But you can speak the words badly while everything else in your acting conveys the essential feeling, and the almost symbiotic friendship between Mr. Curtis and Kirk Douglas is one of the film’s strengths, the facial expression and body language saying more and saying better than the wooden lines. AND he handles the “snails and oysters” homosexual seduction scene opposite Sir Laurence Olivier with aplomb. But most and best of all, in 1959 between those two pictures, came Some Like it Hot, which will be revered as long as people watch movies. Yes, Mr. Curtis walks off with Marilyn Monroe in the end, but he does it while spending most of the movie as a dork imitating Cary Grant or in full, really good-looking drag. What’s really interesting in hindsight is how Mr. Curtis’s character is a nominal joker, but he’s actually usually the straight man for Miss Monroe’s dim-witted gold-digging singer or the frenetic Jack Lemmon. How you can pull that act off, I don’t know, but Mr. Curtis did it…and I wish he could have gotten more roles like that.

Magic is an interesting thing. Not Antoninus’s showbizzy magic, but the ability to pull off something which when written down seems impossible. Mr. Curtis’s Joe/Josephine/Junior, so perfect in its versatility, is one feat of magic. Another is when you can top the Billboard charts with a rock album which feature a grand total of ONE SONG. And then you do it AGAIN. This inconceivable achievement was accomplished by Jethro Tull and their lead singer/flautist/songwriter Ian Anderson in 1972 and 1973. (NOTE: My roommate Patrick has lent me his Jethro Tull collection, so you’ll be hearing a lot about them in the next few weeks.) The first of those two albums was Thick as a Brick, which has held a special place in my heart since elementary school, years before I heard it. My father, a huge Jethro Tull fan during the high school-college transition years, owns Thick as a Brick on vinyl…and for the packaging, Mr. Anderson created an entire fake newspaper with pages of lengthy articles, all of which were tied to the lyrics, and a backstory claiming that the album is a musical setting for a very long poem by nine year-old Gerald Bostock. If only nine year-olds WERE that talented, the world would be a more fantastic place. Thick as a Brick, the album-slash-song, has some terrific lyrics which I THINK are a reflection on the state of humankind when living under the control of institutions, be they government, religion, education, whatever, and our need for freedom, and they are sung in a witty, angry, and emotional tone by Mr. Anderson, but this would be nothing if the melodies and harmonies weren’t so killer from beginning to end. Mr. Anderson arranged the piece to show off his band’s full palette, and his flute, Martin Barre’s guitar, John Evan’s piano, Barriemore Barlow’s frenetic percussion, and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’s rock solid bass interact in complex but sonorous ways which would have made Mozart’s mouth water. And for a 42-minute long song, it NEVER gets boring or lags. Even the drum solo at the start of side two is fantastic, and the different melodic sections all flow into each other without jarring and NEVER repeat themselves, except in the end when they reprise the main themes to give the song-slash-album an appropriate wrap-up. Thick as a Brick is difficult listening, but well worth it.

"Everybody's on the stage, and it seems like you're the only person sitting in the audience."

But after the second chart-topper, A Passion Play (review next week!) was savaged by disenchanted critics, Mr. Anderson decided it was time to go back to albums with multiple songs. Unfortunately, 1974’s War Child was not the best way to restart such a modus operandi. There may be ten tracks, but with two exceptions the lyrics are a droning rant against mankind with none of the charm of Thick as a Brick, and musically Mr. Anderson proves uninspired…there are only fragments of melodies which he tries to fill up with Mr. Barre’s guitar solos, David Palmer’s orchestral arrangements (charming, minimal, and effective on the earlier record, sounding like obvious window-dressing here), gimmicks like sound effects and spoken word passages, and lots of repetition of the already scrawny material until you’re going insane. Side one is particularly awful, with “Back Door Angels” one of the WORST songs ever put to tape by a genuinely good bad and nice ideas like “Sealion” collapsing as Mr. Anderson piles unnecessary weight on their weightlessness. There are three good songs…the title track, which leads side one, deceives you into thinking this will be a passionate, all-out assault of a symphonic rock record, and side two begins with two Tull classics, “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day,” a showcase for acoustic guitar and some of Mr. Anderson’s finest poetry, and the immortal, goofy, so much fun to sing along with top-ten hit “Bungle in the Jungle.” You think the album will be saved…but the charming “Only Solitaire” is FAR TOO SHORT and the final ten minutes are pure blecch on the side one scale.

I mentioned three deaths at the beginning. Arthur Penn (b. 1922) helped create Hollywood as we know it today when Warren Beatty picked him to direct 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, which has lost none of its taboo-shattering, iconoclastic, subversive power. To show two amoral, sexually-troubled, happily law-breaking people in all the glory cinema offers takes immense talent and skill, and Mr. Penn possessed both in spades. His career was an even divide between Broadway and Hollywood, and his skills with actors makes me wish I had a time machine so I could return to the fifties and sixties to see The Miracle Worker, Two for the Seesaw, and his other productions. At least his work is preserved on celluloid, from The Left-Handed Gun (1958) with Paul Newman as Billy the Kid to Penn and Teller Get Killed (1989), with most notably for the Rostan family in the middle his film version of Alice’s Restaurant (1969), which earned him his second Best Director nomination, although I doubt his visuals are as fun as my father singing the entire Arlo Guthrie song.

And when I was a child, back when Thick as a Brick wove its magic spell on my imagination, my mother and I never missed Avonlea on the Disney Channel and dreamed of going to Prince Edward Island to see the actual country Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote about. So it was with a heaping dose of nostalgic sadness when I read on my friend Doug’s facebook page that Jackie Burroughs (b. 1939) passed away last week. A character actress with a lengthy, impressive resume, Ms. Burroughs is forever etched in my memory as Hetty King, the old-maid aunt with a cantankerous demeanor but a heart as big as a watermelon who raised Sarah Polley’s Sara Stanley into a woman just as imaginative and independent as her guardian…and to me was the grandmother you wanted to have if your own grandmothers weren’t so loving and wonderful.

Star Trek: The Trouble With Tribbles (1967) by David Gerrold

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Yeah...sheer genius

It took 25 and 3/4 years of my life, but thanks to my girlfriend, I finally saw fifty of the most iconic minutes in science-fiction history: the Enterprise‘s epic confrontation with small, furry, lumps of hair which bear a startling resemblance to Chia pets and, in the words of Dr. McCoy, are “born pregnant.”  The Tribbles are not malevolent by nature, so this being the original Star Trek with clear lines between good and evil, while they do screw a bunch of things up for James T. Kirk and company, they also allow Kirk to get rid of some troublesome Klingons AND foil a second Klingon plot to sabotage the food supply for Sherman’s Planet.  (Or were these two strands of the same plot?  David Gerrold never really makes this clear.)  And I’ll admit, “The Trouble With Tribbles” is one of those things which really and truly live up to all the hype.  Like The Room.  Anyway, since a single episode of the program only offers enough in-depth commentary for a diehard Trekkie, which I am not, here are a few observations…

What I love most about William Shatner is that the vocal cadence which made him ripe for parody his entire career is so obviously natural…and yet is so terribly jarring with spoken English.  How does one force pauses to your attention every single time?  But from Judgment at Nuremberg to Boston Legal, the Shatnerian pause is a glorious thing to hear, so intense and yet so amazingly un-self-conscious.  Plus, watching this episode, you can clearly see something  of what makes Mr. Shatner the Trekkie’s choice as greatest captain.  Patrick Stewart was a philosophical statesman, Avery Brooks an imposing but benevolent commander, Kate Mulgrew a wise diplomat…but Mr. Shatner, under the handsome face and readiness for action, comes across as the most ordinary-person of the captains.  He wears ridiculous clothes.  He has something of a paunch.  He suggests that the Trek ideal  of a future society in space would indeed be a democratic society.

It’s a pleasure to hear Leonard Nimoy deliver every one of what would be called witticisms if Spock was witty…the line about the “ermine violin” is genius.

Best moment of the episode: either when Scotty tells Kirk what led to one of the show’s more ridiculously choreographed fight scenes (he attacks the Klingons not when they insult Kirk but when they insult the ship) or Kirk being bombarded by Tribbles who just FALL OUT OF THE GRAIN SILO one after the other.  That Mr. Shatner plays this with dignity is all to his credit.

By the way, as if to prove something about the 1960s vision of the future, my girlfriend’s roommate was convinced that the bar on Sherman’s Planet (And I’m sorry, that was the BEST name Mr. Gerrold came up with?) became the cafeteria on Beverly Hills 90210.

And best of all, this episode demonstrates the secret of Star Trek and its multiple incarnations.  The show is about a diverse group of people who really care about each other and actually work together in a unified effort to solve problems.  The Kirk-Spock friendship is the main case in point (I would follow that with Picard’s paternal relationship with Riker, Wesley, and other crew of the Enterprise-D.) but all of the Starfleet members share a really tight bond.  Just watch everybody laugh, with Mr. Nimoy restraining a smile, at the very end after Scotty reveals what he did with the Tribbles…

David L. Wolper (1928-2010)

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WHO?  David L. Wolper was a producer who loved the sheer act of putting a bunch of different elements together and concocting some entertainment.  The bulk of his career was spent in documentary, including the Oscar-winning The Hellstrom Chronicle, which suggested that insects were going to overrun the planet and offered a convincing argument that this would happen.  (This was 1971, by the way…)  But in the late 1960s he started making movies with a showman’s flair, and then in the late 1970s he brought that flair to television, the medium for which he had produced his most acclaimed cinema-verite. lifelong work with television reached a new apex.  From these two divergences into fiction came three projects: the two most-watched miniseries in American history, and an iconic part of mine and everyone’s childhood.

Even if you haven’t seen Roots (1977), the iconography of the Alex Haley adaptation has passed into entertainment immortality…how many parodies exist of the story, Dave Chappelle’s probably the most brilliant?  But this obscures the audacity of Roots, eight nights of a truly epic historical drama/family saga which spared very little in depicting slavery and racial prejudice.  I’ve read stories…I know people…who basically spent a week in front of their screens watching LeVar Burton and Ben Vereen and Louis Gosset, Jr., caught up in the humanity and the inspiration.  What always affected me about Roots is how Mr. Wolper and his crew brought out the PERSONALITY of the story…this was Mr. Haley researching his own past, a personal past, and the concentration on generations only makes us wonder in the end what our own genealogies hold, what untold tales of inspiration and heroism we may never have bothered to discover.

At the other end of the spectrum from Roots is The Thorn Birds (1982), a four-parter so trashy, so over-the-top, so just-that-more-classy than a Harlequin or Kensington novel that you can bring yourself to watch it…and still so very, very entertaining.  And yes, it is trashy…a priest, eventually a cardinal, becomes obsessed with an Australian sheep-farming girl when she’s NINE, thenshe grows up into the very sexy Rachel Ward and falls in love with him, and they indulge in the most poorly-mixed sex on the beach ever, and…but Mr. Wolper and company, especially Miss Ward and Richard Chamberlain, play it with such sincerity that the audience ends up moved in spite of themselves.  At least I was moved in spite of myself.   Seriously, Mr. Chamberlain is convincing as a man torn between God, love, and ambition (I watched this after he had come out of the closet, and he’s as convincing as Rock Hudson in the fifties…I NEVER wuld have imagined), and Barbara Stanwyck and Christopher Plummer have a grand old time making some ham sandwiches.  And everything just looks so lush and passionate, even the sheep farm…this is definitely not Shakespeare or Chaucer tragic romance, but it is affecting and a lot of fun.

And of course, the same year as The Hellstrom Chronicle, Mr. Wolper gave a gift to the world’s children then, now, and forever in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Roald Dahl hated the movie because it focused too much on Wonka and not on original title character Charlie Bucket.  He was wrong…Peter Ostrum is so believably rambunctious, wide-eyed, gentle, and good-hearted as Charlie, and the combination of his wondrous reaction to the events of the story and the purity of his relationship to his widowed mother and his grandparents is the emotional core which we remember as much as the other two major elements of the film.  It’s just that Mr. Wolper and director Mel Stuart got those two other elements so damn right.  The factory is a John Tenniel wonderland sprinkled with sugar and cocoa beans and brought to living-color-and-motion existence.  And Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka is a powerhouse performance.  From the opening somersault (Mr. Wilder came up with that scene and told Mr. Wolper that if it was included, he would take the part) to the song-and-dances (Name me someone who doesn’t enjoy “Pure Imagination” and I’ll doubt the existence of their soul.) to the final launching of the Great Glass Elevator, Mr. Wilder caterwauls through the film, but always with the steps of a practiced ballet dancer.  Anthony Newley and Leslie Briccusse’s songs are so, so enjoyable, the Boat Ride sequence still can scar you for life if you’re not careful, and I’ll admit…the final line makes my eyes well a little and I’m 25.

“But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”

“What happened?”

“He lived happily ever after.”

(Mr. Wolper also produced the 1984 Olympic ceremonies and L.A. Confidential, thus creating not one but two, and two very different, romanticized impressions of an already overly-romanticized city.)