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Stephen Fry in America Review

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by Mark Botwright Nov 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    There are several indisputable facts in life: one plus one equals two, there is no dodging the common cold and the most important and truest of all, that Stephen Fry is a national treasure. It is a phrase that is oft misused but when applied to Fry, the cap fits perfectly. Thus it seems rather odd to be given the task of critiquing his latest offering, but do so I shall. Here we meet the uber wit as he gladly tells us that were it not for one decision on his father's part he could have been born an American. Not that many would need such a tenuous premise in order to tune in but it gives us a segue into this man's mindset and why he is so fascinated by our Atlantic cousins and their culture.



    So off we set and join Fry in his quest to fulfil a lifetime ambition of visiting all 50 states. Our carriage for the journey is fittingly a London black cab (though not Stephen's own but rather one hired especially) which creates the perfect juxtaposition against the grand landscapes of this massive country. It acts as a constant reminder of the presenter's presence as an interloper, literally a foreign body in what seems a leviathan as if it were Jonah and America the whale.



    To assess this series though, we must firstly determine what it is not. It does not contain the judgemental Englishman stance of Louis Theroux, nor does it look deeply into the state of the nation as the recent captivating series The American Future: A History by Simon Schama did. Instead it reveals itself to be more a travel diary akin to the like one would expect to see if a loved one returned from an extraordinarily long holiday. It firmly places itself in a position whereby it (and with it Fry) never really seeks to judge or truly deconstruct but rather allows the experience of meeting some of the most varied population on the planet tell its own tale. That is not to say that our intrepid QI host never lets his true feelings be known if he comes across a sight that is not to his liking. However such instances are few and far between and thankfully he exhibits none of the characteristics of the classic English snob, such as to take a swipe at Americans for lacking class, rather simply commenting by monologue on such matters as the body beautiful and beech culture as being ugly and casinos being pretty depressing places to be, however it is nice to find his musing punctuated by the phrase “....but maybe that's just me”.



    I am afraid though, this is where my first problem with the series originates. To be open minded to American culture is a splendid thing especially in these current times of simplified stereotypes, however Fry never really scratches the surface of any subject. Those who have enjoyed his rants on QI and Room 101 when confronted with the subject of new age crystals and the like will baulk at his mute noddings as he watches a middle aged Jewish woman from Maine practising voodoo as a proclaimed high priestess in New Orleans. It is almost as if Fry's yearning to fall in love with all things American has superseded all rationality and left him little more than a prop that is placed before camera. To waste such a sharp and insightful mind seems to almost defy logic. The point, perhaps, was to have an unthreatening interviewing style and to be fair, that is achieved. This helps to place the focus squarely upon the characters he meets whilst on his travels and thus avoids the trap of being simply a celebrity holiday video.



    The truth though, is that it is in the brief times when Fry allows his tongue free rein that we glimpse the funny side of proceedings. One can't help but delight in the scene where a young Kentuckian, describing a tattoo he proudly bears on his backside of his home state as “refreshing”, Fry quips “a refreshing bottom is a fine thing to have”. This drollery seems few and far between, which is perplexing for what is six hours of television. The format does no one any favours either, as to cover 50 states in such time is a mammoth task and it is little wonder that there is less than a few minutes screen time for some and others are essentially ignored. To miss out certain locations can perhaps be forgiven but what I fail to comprehend is how the largest of presences, that of the beautiful American landscape, is so often overlooked. We get ample shots of Fry's face as he looks upon a sight but viewers often have to make do with little more than pictures taken with a wobbling camera out of a moving car window. By rights this series should have been packed to the gills with slow gazes at some of the most breathtaking scenery on the globe coupled with one of the most pleasing voices (as the sheer amount of voiceover work attests to) that the English speaking world has produced in recent times.



    That the presenter himself commented that America appears a land of contradictions seems very apt as so is this series. On the one hand it remains upbeat and unreservedly positive about all things American. Treating the people of the land in an open handed manner and willingly observant of their practices as if documenting the intricate behaviour of an Amazonian tribe. On the other, it is factually light and contains many individuals that would look not out of place sat on The Jerry Springer Show. Perhaps I am simply not attuned to the very nature of this series and as such am unable to wholly appreciate its charms. It is full of whimsy and child like delight yet I have come to associate Fry with an inquiring mind that seeks to make sense of subjects presented to him rather than nodding and adding the occasional “gosh” and “my word”.



    This series seems to be best summed up in its title then. Stephen Fry in America will not likely teach you much about the American way of life or indeed its rich and fascinating history. If that is what you require from travelogues then Palin or Schama will more than likely fit the bill. This instead is more akin to a holiday video. You see a loved one standing in various different locations and simply try to enjoy their unbridled enthusiasm for subjects. Case in point, when Fry witnesses a college (American) football game he remarks “I really don't know if anything sums up America better, it's simultaneously preposterous, incredibly laughable, impressive, charming, ridiculous, expensive, overpopulated, wonderful.......American”. It was at this moment I had assumed we were about to witness a truly insightful travel documentary that was to be marked by a brilliant minds even approach to a subject matter, however when thirty seconds later I saw him crying when the crowd sang the American national anthem I knew this was not necessarily to be. This really is a love letter to America from the presenter which is perhaps what he always meant it to be, if so then he has firmly achieved his aim. How you view that ultimately reflects how much you will get out of this travelogue.



    Let me make one thing perfectly clear; I am a great fan of Stephen Fry and will continue to put all else on hold to watch QI, read his books, listen to his podgrams or watch any further documentary he makes that are akin to his excellent works on manic depression and HIV. However, this format does him no favours and rushes him through what essentially ends up feeling like 50 bus stops rather than states, all without the photography we have come to expect of other BBC travel series. It has a charm all of its own that I'm sure many will appreciate but for me it lacked any sense of pacing and goes down very much as a missed opportunity when you consider what should have been a dream team of almost limitlessly varied subject matter and one of the wittiest, urbane, verbose and frankly truly great TV personalities of our time. It reminded me very much of a whistle stop tour where one simply wants to pause and spend a little more time exploring rather than get back on the bus.