Archive

Television

Wild Wild Country

When I was growing up, the idea of voluntarily watching a documentary – the TV equivalent of eating your vegetables — was laughable and about as probable as me doing extra homework.

Oh sure, at the movies there was “Endless Summer,” a documentary about two surfer dudes going around the world in search of the perfect wave, which in retrospect was a pretty sneaky geography lesson.  And then there was “Woodstock,” which actually made me glad I never scored a ticket to that mud-fest.  But most theatrical documentaries back then were pretty grim – stories about mental hospitals, plucky unionizers, or Vietnam War criminals.

And television was worse than grim.  It was boring.  To the extent they were any documentaries on TV they were on PBS, which was known in my youth as the “educational channel.”

And yet here we are in 2018 and I find myself distracted from scripted television because I’m drawn instead to such TV documentaries as “Andre the Giant” on HBO and Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” about the 1980’s Bagwan Rashneesh cult.  Last year I was captivated by the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about the Vietnam War, and by “Five Came Back,” the story of five famous Hollywood directors who enlisted to produce propaganda films during World War II.

Maybe I like the format now because I’m older (after all it’s a cliché that dads like nothing better than to watch World War II documentaries on The History Channel).  Or maybe documentaries are just better now.   Either way, there’s no question that the number of high-quality documentaries offered on TV has grown exponentially.

For years PBS had the franchise on documentaries with regular series like Frontline, the American Experience and Cosmos. But the genre really came into its own with the 1990 broadcast of Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” which created a whole new generation of Civil War buffs. Four years later Burns’ series on baseball was another national sensation.

PBS lost its monopoly on documentaries with the expansion of cable TV, when networks like Discovery, National Geographic Channel, A&E and others jumped in with their own niche documentary programming. Without high-paid stars, documentaries became a cheaper source of programming than scripted programming and could be profitable even with basic cable’s smaller audiences.

In recent years, HBO, Netflix and even ESPN upped the game again.  HBO’s “The Jinx,” became a minor phenomenon with its exploration into the allegedly murderous past of Robert Durst. Netflix followed with its own murder mystery documentary series “The Making of a Murderer.” And ESPN launched the “30 for 30” series of sports documentaries that culminated in the award-winning “O.J. Made in America.”

The TV format is perfect for documentaries.  In a movie theater you can last maybe three hours before getting up and walking out but a TV documentary can be presented in multiple episodes over days or weeks (e.g., “The Vietnam War” was 18 hours long).  Documentaries are also a short-term commitment – you don’t need to worry that you’re signing on to years of viewing like you do when you start a scripted series.

Most important, because the scope of documentaries is so vast there’s a subject of interest for every occasion.  Documentaries can be fun, they can be searing, they can be thoughtful.  They can be long or short.  They can be esoteric.  I once watched a documentary about the Helvetica typeface and it was surprisingly absorbing.

It was a sign of danger for traditional TV when I, a notorious late adopter, recently settled into my hotel during a business trip and didn’t turn on the TV to channel surf.  Instead I logged onto my laptop and scanned Netflix for the documentary offerings.  I was looking for something interesting but not too intense.  I’m not proud to say that I landed on a history of the rock band Chicago.  I hadn’t thought about them for years and didn’t realize I even wanted to know anything about them, but it turned out to be the perfect blend of nostalgia, pop history, and oldies music for chilling out.

But if it hadn’t been Chicago, it could have been a documentary about Roger Stone, Amanda Knox, the feud between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, sushi or minor league baseball.  All those subjects sounded a lot more interesting than the reruns, cable news, reality shows, or home improvement programs you’re likely to find watching live TV.

In the end, the appeal of documentaries is that truth is stranger than fiction, and all a documentary has to do is unveil the truth.  That can be a lot more interesting than 80 percent of what else is on TV.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

CNN Trump

It’s hard to believe there’s been any figure in American history who has so dominated the day-to-day American consciousness as Donald Trump.  It’s been almost three years since the fateful moment he descended that golden escalator in Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign, and there’s been scarcely a day since when he hasn’t commanded our attention.

Trump can rightfully claim the title that Howard Stern once conferred on himself: The King of All Media.  In doing so he has been aided and abetted by the media themselves.   It’s no small irony that the same people who purport to loathe him are the very ones giving him all the airtime and ink.  (Or as Michelle Wolf framed it at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV.  You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”)

I work in an open space office and the wall-mounted televisions give me a good idea about how dependent TV news is on Trump’s antics to keep the viewers enthralled.  How I long for the days when they would merely exploit a murdered teen or celebrity melt-down to keep the eyeballs tuned in!  Now it’s all Trump all the time.

Dick Cavett recently admitted that Watergate was one of the greatest times of his life because it was a thrilling day-to-day drama that resulted in the ejection of a president he despised.  We’re in the same mindset now.  All those who live in non-stop outrage, either pro- or anti-Trump, claim they’re fighting for the good of the country but they seem addicted to the same adrenaline rush that afflicts gamblers, thrill-seekers and bungee jumpers.

I have a Trump-voting friend who dreads coming home from work because his wife will inevitably meet him at the door outraged over Trump’s latest malfeasance.  She knows these non-stop rants aren’t good for their marriage but just can’t stop watching CNN while doing the laundry or checking Twitter in bed. If that’s not addiction, I don’t know what is.

It‘s now a commonplace to say that Trump has turned the presidency into a reality TV show, but in truth the presidency has been a reality show for decades.  I just listened to John Dickerson’s “Whistlestop” podcast on Slate.com about the increasing role that presidents play as symbolic participants in our national drama.  For example, in 1955, President Eisenhower could go on vacation, completely off the grid while a series of hurricanes slammed the Southeast.  And no one thought it was strange that the President was playing golf while millions of Americans suffered.

That all changed in 1965 when President Johnson decided to take advantage of the TV coverage of Hurricane Betsy to show he was a strong leader in charge of the federal response.  Alas, hurricanes aren’t always a president’s friend.  We all remember that President George W. Bush’s inadequate display of empathy during Hurricane Katrina seriously derailed his presidency.

But high-visibility hurricane response is only a tiny sliver of the vast portfolio of emotional responsibilities the president is expected to master.  He (and eventually she) is supposed to be the mourner-in-chief, America’s dad or grandpa, the exerciser-in-chief, the sports-fan-in-chief, the main arbiter of American cultural taste (at the Kennedy Center), the comedian-in-chief (at the White House Correspondence Dinner) and the overall embodiment of the American nation.

The State of the Union, for example, long ago devolved into a very special episode for the presidential reality show, with one side of the aisle cheering wildly at the president’s every utterance and everyone across the aisle one working hard to frown or jeer whenever they think they might be on TV.  It’s now “Wrestlemania” in suits and ties.

The point is that a lot of the president’s job has very little to do with his actual Constitutional responsibility, which is to manage the executive branch of the federal government.  But it’s the extra-Constitutional responsibilities that we’re most addicted to.  Who cares about housing policy when there’s Twitter?  The presidential behavior that most outrages the Trump addicts is the most inconsequential – the tweets, off the cuff remarks, and verbal flights of fancy at his rallies.  Not coincidentally, these are also the behaviors that draw the most opprobrium on TV and the highest ratings.

Is it possible to break the Trump addiction?  Lord knows I’m trying but there are so many enablers who keep pulling me back.  I’ve “hidden” my most fanatical Facebook friends and unfollowed most political and cultural reporters on Twitter.  I walk right past the TV if a cable news channel is on and I’ve stopped watching all the late night TV shows.

None of this is really helping.  Trump is still everywhere.  In a Wall Street Journal essay a few weeks ago, Joseph Epstein suggested that just as we had meatless Monday’s during World War II, maybe we should now have Trumpless Thursdays.  Oh how divine that would be.  Let’s get on that.

 

roseanne-trumpreboo1-640x480

Now that we are almost halfway through the new nine-episode season of “Roseanne,” can we do a quick check-in to see if it’s living up to its early promise as a reflection of white working class America in the age of Trump?

The show is just a few weeks distant from those shockingly high ratings for the premiere episode, which, for the first time ever, sympathetically depicted a family of Trump supporters on a scripted television show.  Which means we’re also just a few weeks distant from the critical meltdown that came with it.

I just finished listening to a podcast on Slate.com in which the participants debated whether continuing to watch the show would morally compromise them.  It is the position of Slate that all Trump voters are racist even if they don’t know it, and that by failing to show the Conners as motivated by animus to black, brown and other non-white populations, the producers are whitewashing the dark side of the Trump Base.

There was also pushback from the conservative side too.  The right-wing editor and commentator Ben Shapiro, on HIS podcast, claimed that the show misrepresented the conservative base by showing that the Conners’ support of Trump was based solely on economic dissatisfaction and not by a reaction to the identity politics and political correctness of the coastal elites.

It’s symptom of these over-politicized times that a relatively benign TV show can generate so much heat, and that its right even to exist can be called into question solely because some of the characters voted for the existing president.  It reminds me of the reaction in the 1970’s to “All in the Family,” an earlier generation’s exploration of working class values.  That show was also denounced for providing a platform for the bigoted Archie Bunker, even though Archie was clearly made to be the buffoon.

The difference between “Rosanne” and “All in the Family” is that the latter was all politics all the time, while “Rosanne” mostly hints at politics.  Since the premiere episode, in which Rosanne Conner and her liberal sister Jackie have a fight over their respective votes, overt politics has been mostly off the table.

Instead of arguments about Trump, what subsequent episodes have offered instead are depictions of social and cultural issues that bedevil most families, but especially working class families who are just getting by in a world that largely disrespects them: Rosanne’s an Uber driver now; one daughter is unemployed and living at home again; another daughter is so desperate to buy herself out of the rut she’s in that she accepts an offer to become a surrogate mother for a ditsy upper-class twit – by using her own eggs, no less. Meaning she’d be essentially selling her own biological daughter.

I think it’s fair to assume that the Conners represent that group of swing voters who voted twice for Obama but couldn’t abide Clinton and the globalism that she embodied.  (Of course the thanks they got for voting for Obama is to be labeled racist for not supporting his white putative successor.)  And contrary to Ben Shapiro’s claims that the Conners are not socially conservative, the fact remains that Dan Conner owns a gun, the family prays before dinner every night, Roseanne enacts a form of corporal punishment on her granddaughter when her daughter is too lenient, and their son DJ is a veteran of the Iraq war. They seem pretty culturally conservative to me.

Much has been made of the loving support that the Conners provide for their gender-fluid grandson and mixed-race granddaughter.  And both of those characters do seem to be on the show for the sole purpose of taking the hard edge off the Roseanne character.  But it’s also true that many families, including working class families, rally around their own kin when they perceive a threat from the outside, even if the threat is just from public opinion in general.

In the end, though, “Rosanne” is still just a sitcom, not a PBS documentary.  I didn’t really like the series when it was first on and I’m not crazy about it now either.  It’s occasionally funny, but represents a genre of TV that was already tired when the show first aired in the 1990s.  As a multi-camera show filmed in front of a life studio audience it’s plagued by a soundtrack of people laughing at jokes, quips and set-ups that just aren’t that hilarious. It’s also undone by the standard sitcom need to wrap up all problems and conflict within 22 minutes so the next episode can start fresh.

And yet the show, as old-fashioned as it is, remains immensely popular, especially in local markets that Trump carried in 2016.  It appears that conservative white voters, who still represent a very large segment of the population, like to see themselves depicted on TV, just as blacks like to watch themselves on “black-ish” or gays like to see themselves represented on “Will and Grace.”  Why it took TV a year-and-a-half to understand that there’s a huge underserved audience out there is another story, but in the meantime, someone is making a lot of money off the idea to bring back “Rosaeanne” and set it in Trumpland.

 

 

 

 

MLB.TV

Last week was the beginning of the baseball season but in our house it’s really the beginning of Over The Top season.

Over The Top, as every MediaPost reader probably already knows, is television programming that does not arrive via antennae, cable or satellite.  It includes subscription-based services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, free and ad-supported services such as Crackle, and transactional services such as iTunes and Amazon Instant Video that allow users to pay for individual pieces of content.

This is where baseball comes in.  I live in a different DMA than my favorite team, so the only way to watch the games is to stream them over the Internet on MLB.TV. Since I’m already a heavy streamer of Netflix, HBO Go, and Amazon Prime, adding baseball games to my TV options crowds out most traditional television except for the prestige Emmy-bait shows like “The Americans” and “Better Call Saul” that return this month.

I’m not alone in going increasingly Over The Top.  Nielsen reports that two-thirds of homes now have Subscription On Demand devices and that among those households, ten percent of TV viewing is streaming.

The traditional networks are racing to catch up and nearly every one of them now offers an SVOD service.  This makes it theoretically possible to drop the cable bundle altogether and cobble together a personalized TV platform of favorite networks and SVOD services.  All this comes in the face of a steady increase in cord-cutting.  According to the Leichtman Research Group, only 79 percent of households paid for cable or satellite service last year, down from 88 percent in 2010.

But as appealing as a 100 percent Over The Top world sounds, there are still downsides.

The biggest problem with Over The Top is inconvenience.  There’s still nothing as simple as watching traditional TV: turn on the set; click around to find something you want to watch; watch.

Not so with Over The Top.  For starters there is no simple way to gain access to all the major SVOD services.  I have an Apple TV device and every time I want to watch something on Amazon Prime I have to hook my laptop to the TV via an HDMI cable.  This is like having one TV in the living room for NBC, CBS and Fox and another one for ABC and ESPN.

I’m also not crazy about the way streaming services handle ads.   Netflix and Amazon Prime are ad-free, but MLB.TV needs to fill the time between innings and for some reason – legal, I assume – it does not run the local ads associated with the local broadcasts.  Last year MLB filled the time with commercials that were not even as good as the one’s you’d see on your local origination channel.  Seemingly between every half-inning they we running ads for an umpire training camp.  I probably saw that commercial 250 times – 200 times more than any other single ad in 2017 – and still I declined the opportunity to become a major league umpire.

Still, cheesy ads aside, MLB.TV is a major success for the Over The Top principle.  Only Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have more subscribers.  Baseball doesn’t have the buzz of other sports like football and basketball, yet with 162 games a year and an ability to tap the deepest reservoirs of family nostalgia, it’s still a major source of summertime programming; it’s primary appeal is that it provides a vehicle for people who are away from what they consider their “real” home to remain connected to their younger selves.

This is a lesson that other Over The Top services can learn from.   Over The Top works best for subscribers who have similar general interests (local sports, entertainment, the arts) but different niche affinities (a specific team, a movie genre) that couldn’t be supported even on a cable network.   This is the formula that makes Netflix a powerhouse even though only a handful of its shows (“Stranger Things,” “The Crown,” etc.) are as well-watched as traditional network hits.

So play ball.  Technology has added a lot to the TV viewing experience in the last ten years but nothing quite measures up to the satisfaction of watching my favorite baseball team all summer.

atlanta-tv-show.jpg

The transformation of television into a fractured platform with hundreds of shows seeking loyal niche audiences means we no longer have a common TV culture, but it does give us a chance to learn about populations we really don’t know much about.

HBO’s “Girls,” for example, provided an unsparing look at Brooklyn’s hipsters, portraying many of them as selfish, entitled, or near-psycho – a sub-subset of America that’s alien to most viewers.

The comedian/rapper/writer Donald Glover has taken a page from the “Girls” playbook with “Atlanta,” another series that shines an unsentimental spotlight on a population that’s usually in the background on mainstream TV.  But instead of the privileged, overeducated white women in “Girls,” the main characters in “Atlanta” are un-privileged black men in the urban South.

Privileged or not, what the “Girls” and “Atlanta” characters have in common is a struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that apparently exists solely to thwart their dreams – dreams that do not include taking or keeping jobs that require discipline, patience or other bourgeois values.

“Girls” creator Len Dunham and Glover, two of the most talented and hard-working artists of their generation, have both created series focused on lost and aimless versions of themselves.  Dunham’s Hannah Horvath aspires to be a famous writer but keeps making bad choices that screw up her prospects.  Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks has so mismanaged his life that he’s perpetually homeless and broke, spending half his time trying to scrounge free food and a place to sleep.

A middle-aged, middle-class suburban white guy like me doesn’t know much about either hipster Brooklyn or black Atlanta, so these shows broaden my experience a bit – or at least I think so. Frankly, I’m in no position to know if “Atlanta” is a fair representation of that community. When I’m watching it, I’m always asking, “Is this what life in poor black America is like?”   This is an important question because there aren’t a lot of TV shows that realistically depict the African American experience in America.

There have been African American-themed TV shows since “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” in the 1970s, but most were produced by white people for white-dominated audiences.  “Atlanta,” however, makes few concessions to white sensibilities and does little to assuage white guilt through the feel-good endings you’d get in a traditional sitcom.

But if the show does little to let whites off the hook, black viewers can’t take much heart from it either.  Earn comes from an intact family and once won a golden ticket to the upper echelons of American society – a scholarship to Princeton.  However, instead of graduating and following his classmates to Wall Street careers, he dropped out and is now a couch-surfing deadbeat dad who’s not-very-successfully managing his cousin’s nascent rap career. In other words, he’s had plenty of chances but sabotaged himself.  But he’s a role model compared to his drug-dealing, thieving associates, who, while not stereotypes themselves, engage in behavior that would make a rightwing think tank tsk tsk.

There’s enough dysfunctional behavior in this surreal scene to fuel a Charles Murray best seller. Also, please note use of AR 15.

Earn is a fish out of water in his old Atlanta neighborhood.   He never falls into the local dialect and can still pass as an Ivy Leaguer among the city’s upper-class blacks.  He’s middle class enough to be his cousin’s interlocutor with white music executives.  Yet he’s so out of favor with his respectable parents that they won’t let him sleep over at their house.

Because he’s articulate and smart, Earn acts as the audience’s emissary as we travel through this strange land.  And because this is ostensibly a comedy, this really is a very strange land.  One character keeps a live alligator in his bathtub; in another episode, an invisible car knocks down people outside a club; in a third, a black man is cast as Justin Bieber.

Here’s the scene with the invisible car

And then there are the every-day experiences that are actually pretty strange when you come to think of it: Earn’s rapper cousin inexplicably becomes more popular each time he gets nabbed for a crime; a rich white dude marries into the black intelligentsia and tries to be blacker-than-thou; and strangest of all – people judge each other solely on the basis of skin color.

Although there are few whites on the show, the effects of racism permeate the world they created.  Poor blacks are hassled by black government workers and preyed upon by black thugs.  The characters repeatedly refer to each other with the N-word. This is a show with African American characters so dysfunctional and unsympathetic that no white person would dare write or produce it.

But is it “true?”  Back to my original question – is this what poor black life is really like?  It’s been universally praised by black critics and intellectuals, and it has high ratings among black viewers, which certainly gives it credibility (although I have to suspect that the show’s African American audience is significantly more upscale than the world “Atlanta” depicts).

Or maybe asking whether “Atlanta” is “real” is the wrong question.  No one should mistake a sitcom for a documentary or research paper.   What we want from a work of art is for it to convey a universal truth about human nature and help us sympathize and understand the characters a little better.  Here’s where Glover succeeds.  He is so honest about his characters’ failings that you actually do understand and feel a little closer to them.  And that’s the best you can hope for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

grace-and-frankie

Netflix’s recent free agent signing of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy sure caught the attention of those who buy, make and comment on television content.  By spiriting away two of the most prolific TV producers of our time, the streaming service not only secures more content for itself, but also denies its network rivals access to two content factories.

The broadcast and cable networks must be looking at Netfilx’s open checkbook and wondering how they can compete for talent.  They see tentpole shows like “The Crown,” “Stranger Things” and the Dave Chappelle specials — which don’t come cheap, but which have become the closest thing we have to must-see TV now that “Game of Thrones” is off the air for a year.

Essential to Netflix’s strategy: not just those massive hits, but also aggressively micro-targeting a vast spectrum of the television audience.  Some Netflix shows are aimed at my mother and others at my son.  There are gay shows, Hispanic shows, African-American shows, rural shows and sophisticated urban shows.  And most of them are probably not that expensive to produce.

This micro-targeting ends the tyranny of the 18-49 demographic, thank God.  As far as Netflix is concerned, an 85-year-old subscriber on Social Security is as valuable as a 33-year-old investment banker.  That’s how we get hit shows like “Grace and Frankie.”

Micro-targeting also makes everyone feel they have a place in the television universe. Because Netflix holds up a mirror to all but the tiniest identity groups, no young members of a minority community will be able to complain in the future that when they were growing up they never saw anyone like themselves on TV.

If I were a TV executive, I wouldn’t be worried about Netflix’s hit shows, but about the “good enough” shows that emerge from this micro-targeting.  The high-quality, appointment TV shows on network and cable can hold their own against Netflix.  It’s mediocre TV that seems most threatened in the long run.

Even in this era of peak TV, some people just turn on the TV to see what’s on and work that remote until they find something that catches their eye.  But channel surfing is what Netflix is all about.  The company doesn’t advertise specific shows, relying instead on its algorithm to promote a show specifically chosen for you on its home screen. If that show doesn’t appeal to you, then you can just start scrolling down the program list to see what they have to offer — a list designed specifically for you, with many “Because you watched XX, we think you might like YY” suggestions.

I’m not crazy about this system of content discovery, which creates a closed loop of viewing.  I recently watched the terrific British show “Lovesick,” about a group of single friends in London trying to sort out their romantic problems — and now I’m bombarded with recommendations for shows about other 30somethings who can’t find their way.  Watching one great series on a particular theme doesn’t mean I want to watch a half dozen so-so shows on the same theme.

lovesick-netflix

What I would really like is an easy-to-scan directory so I can find what I want on my own.  Netflix is such a bottomless pit of content that I don’t know what I don’t know.   And it’s only going to get worse. The new content keeps coming so fast that I feel like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory trying to keep up.

Having said all that, genre searching on Netflix is much more satisfying that channel-surfing on a traditional cable television service. Clicking up and down channels is mind-numbing, and chances are you’ll be joining a program that’s already in progress — fine if you’re catching an episode of “Seinfeld” that you’ve watched a dozen times, but not so great for a show you’ve never seen.

So congratulations to Netflix for creating two disruptive businesses: first, the mail order DVD company that put Blockbuster out of business, and then the streaming video enterprise that could well shut down some marginal broadcast and cable networks.  Keep it coming — but just find a better way to tell me how to find it.

the-crown-season-3

This has been a pretty good season for the Windsor family.  To general acclaim, Prince Harry announced his engagement to the American TV actress Meghan (“Suits”) Markle.  Then Queen Elizabeth herself participated in a much-heralded televised conversation about her coronation, which was shown in the U.S. on The Smithsonian Channel.

But the real TV action for the British Monarchy has been “The Crown,” the sumptuous Netflix soap opera for viewers who think “Downton Abbey” is too downmarket.

The series, which purports to depict the behind-the-scenes lives of the Queen and her family, is based on material from three sources: 1) the public record; 2) unofficial and sometimes gossipy backstage accounts published in books and articles over the years; and 3) the best guesses and inferences of showrunner Peter Morgan about what happened among the royals in private.

For example, it is a known fact that Prince Philip went on a months-long royal tour in the 1950s, during which the hijinks of his private secretary burst into view and created a scandal for the prince.  It is also known that before Philip returned to the U.K., the Queen flew to Portugal and the two of them had a long private tete-a-tete on the yacht Britannia.  Also on the record is that soon thereafter, Philip got a title upgrade to prince.

But what actually happened during that private time on the ship?  Did they do what many long separated couples would do under those circumstances vis-à-vis marital relations? Or did they, as Morgan depicts, have a major row about Philip’s escapades with the ladies, during which he agreed to turn over a new leaf in return for being anointed Duke of Edinburgh?  Only two people know what happened in that stateroom, and neither of them is talking.

Here’s the problem with the genre of historical drama.  In real life, people have multiple motivations and complex feelings.  Moreover, larger-than-life figures who attract TV bio-series are infinitely more interesting than the simplified characters you see on even the most subtle TV show. Inevitably TV prunes away complexity in order to get to a story that has a point, a theme, and a lesson.

Claire Foy gives a very good performance as the young monarch but is handicapped by our long exposure to the real Elizabeth.  Perhaps no person in history has been as publicly gawked at by as many people as the Queen, and after sixty years we all know how she talks, walks and generally presents herself.

We can, for example, compare the Queen’s actual televised Christmas message in 1957 (see below) with the show’s version, which shows how Claire Foy fails to capture the essence of the Queen.  The real Elizabeth has an extravagantly flutey upper-crust accent and looks nervous throughout the broadcast; all this is smoothed over and softened in “The Crown,” presumably to make her more approachable to us in 2018.

The same thing happens when you compare the recreated and real coronations, royal weddings and other events captured on newsreel footage.  Foy is an attractive and talented actress — but in her mid-20s, the real Queen was somehow both more beautiful and charismatic than a mere Hollywood movie star.

queen-elizabeth-the-crown

But Foy’s performance is Emmy-worthy compared to how the Americans are played.   An entire episode revolves around a visit by Jack and Jackie Kennedy, and Michael C. Hall’s presentation of JFK as a nasty jealous husband is so not-credible that it calls into question the verisimilitude of the whole series.

JFK-Michael-C-Hall-The-Crown

This is supposed to be JFK and Jackie? I don’t think so.

The issue of whether dramas based on “real events” can begin to depict the “truth” becomes more pressing as the number of historically based limited series increases.  “Waco,” “Versace,” “The Feud,” and “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” for example, have all mined the recent past to critical acclaim and big audiences.

You’re asking for trouble when you try to impersonate the Queen and O.J. Simpson — or, as in “The Feud,” Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, whose faces, voices and mannerisms are already better-known to us than our own family’s.  Second-string famous people like David Koresh and Gianni Versace are more believably portrayed in highly fictionalized historical dramas that the uber-famous.

In truth, if you want to dramatize history, the distant past is much easier to exploit.  Claire Foy was completely believable as another Queen – Anne Boleyn –  in “Wolf Hall.” And I’m more than happy to accept that the youthful Victoria was exactly as played by Jenna Coleman in “Victoria.” And let’s not forget the gold standard for Queenly portrayals: Glenda Jackson as the first Elizabeth 40 years ago in “Elizabeth R.”

Claire-Foy-as-Anne-Boleyn-wolf-hall-mini-series-2015-37962299-960-640

Here’s Claire Foy completely convincing as Anne Boleyn 

This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed “The Crown.”  Generally I consider each episode a perfect hour of TV.  It’s great to look at, it makes me feel smart because I already know a lot of the history, and it’s just complicated enough to stimulate my brain.

But after every episode, I rush to Wikipedia to see how much of it is “true” – that is, objectively true, not just a jumble of concocted scenes to get at an “essential truth.”  And that’s when I decide how much I like the episode: when I confirm how much it sticks to the facts.  This is not the way art is supposed to work, but that’s what happens when a TV show claims to be based on the historical record.