HBO, America's Jane Austen
The new film adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" is one of the least necessary artistic projects of 2005. There have been so many. And unlike the last major commercial success ("Bridget Jones's Diary," just four years ago), the new version is largely faithful to the novel and to earlier film versions. It breaks no new ground, adds nothing. I enjoyed it a lot.
Jane Austen's famous opening sentence ("It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .") is intended to flatter the reader with feelings of worldly superiority to the claustrophobic society she writes about. But a couple of centuries later, the joke is on the reader. Thanks to novelists such as Austen and Anthony Trollope, people today whose own lives are different in almost every conceivable way share a feeling and a fondness for provincial life in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Yes, of course, there's yet another twist on Austen's joke: These novels actually do explore universal and timeless aspects of the human condition. But the pleasure of escaping into their particular small and long-gone world is at least an equal part of their appeal.
The 19th century was a time when Britain mattered. And then, as now, the countryside, not London, is the essence of Britain to the Brits themselves. When a British rock star hits it big, he buys a "stately home" (i.e., a mansion) in some village. Today Britain doesn't matter much. But who the new vicar will be in some fictional village 200 years ago still matters a lot. It is history's consolation prize. Nineteenth-century English village life will always loom overlarge in the world's imagination, like Greenland in a Mercator projection map.
Today America matters, for the moment. Some day, possibly soon, we won't. Where in America is the essence of our society, and is anybody creating the mocking but affectionate portrait of it that will still seduce people in the 23rd century? Years ago the Wall Street Journal proclaimed John Updike's "Rabbit" novels the definitive portrait of America in our time. Tom Wolfe set out self-consciously to be the American Trollope with a series of fat social novels beginning with "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
But when an American rock star hits it big, he doesn't move to Updike's rural Pennsylvania. He buys a beach house in Malibu. The America of the world's imagination is Hollywood -- meaning the tonier parts of greater Los Angeles, where the sun is shining and people have lunch instead of jobs, except for some Mexicans mowing the lawn in the background. This imaginary precinct is no farther from reality than Trollope's Barchester. And if the world still thinks fondly of America at the turn of the 23rd century, long after people have forgotten that there ever was a President Bush, let alone two of them, thanks will be due to Home Box Office.
In recent seasons, most of HBO's regular original programming has been shows about Hollywood. This may seem a bit solipsistic: Hollywood producers and writers and actors making shows about Hollywood producers and writers and actors. But recall your high school English teacher's instructions: Write about what you know. It worked for Jane Austen.
"Curb Your Enthusiasm," the most successful of HBO's Hollywood portraits, features Larry David, co-producer of "Seinfeld," as a man with the same name and general history. The fictional Larry David is self-centered, paranoid, hypochondriacal, childish, boorish -- and yet, somehow, appealing. The real Larry David is either similar or a very talented creator and actor.
"Entourage," off the air but coming back, is supposed to be about the cronies who hang around a rising movie star, modeled after the show's executive producer, Mark Wahlberg. But the young star's agent has more or less taken over the show, thanks to some wildly entertaining overacting by Jeremy Piven.
"The Comeback," a show last season that undeservedly didn't make it, had a complicated premise: The star of an ancient sitcom has a minor part in a new one, while being followed by cameras for a reality show that is documenting her attempt at a comeback. (Got that?) Lisa Kudrow -- the ditz in "Friends" -- as the fallen star, trying to retain her dignity through wave after wave of petty humiliation, was subtle, intelligent and heartbreaking (which may be why this comedy didn't make it).
"Extras," whose first season just ended, is a co-production with the BBC about the peons of a movie set. Dark, dark, dark, with a lot of British accents and cultural references that are hard to follow. But much funnier than, say, "King Lear," which shares these same challenges.
Finally, the canon should also include "Arliss," an HBO series several years ago (available on DVD) about an agent for superstar athletes.
In the space of a newspaper column (a literary form meant for simpler subjects, like health care or Middle East peace) I can only assert that these shows are very good. I can't defend or qualify that assertion, except to say, Okay, they're not "King Lear." But they are better than almost anything else on TV. Specifically, these riffs on reality are better than the ham-handed surrealism of more successful HBO shows such as "Six Feet Under" and even "The Sopranos."
HBO's Hollywood canon has its own universally acknowledged truths: Stars are vain and stupid, producers and moguls are vain and smart, etc. The presentation of Jews and Judaism on these shows deserves a long, ambivalent essay of its own.
These programs generally run on Sunday evening, a time slot formerly reserved by many Americans for the worship of things British on PBS. HBO has reconquered this crucial ground for America. It's a great place to visit. Living there looks pretty good, too.