Part of all the fallout from living in a multimedia world is that it becomes harder than ever to declare this or that kind of programming obsolete. Sitcoms are being pronounced dead again -- just as they were immediately before "The Cosby Show" and "Seinfeld" came along. Nothing seemed deader than movie musicals, and then came "Moulin Rouge" and later "Chicago."
And the documentary, which has had innumerable memorial services over the years, has been brought blasting back to life, thanks in large measure to Michael Moore and his "Bowling for Columbine" and now "Fahrenheit 9/11." Documentaries are part of what's filling all those holes on all those channels on satellite and digital cable television.
Many of those are pallid and perfunctory, but by happy contrast, the documentaries blossoming forth on the Trio cable network tonight, and over the next few weeks, are by no means token fare. As with Moore's work but to a much less abrasive and contentious degree, they're programs with a point of view, which helps a lot and distinguishes them from the endless recycling on other cable networks of films about the carving of Mount Rushmore, the invention of the potato peeler or that whole genre of "I Love the '70s" and "I Miss the '80s" docs that play back-to-back-to-back on VH1 and elsewhere.
A friend suggests that this trend is so out of hand and overexposed that he expects any day now to see sentimental retrospectives along the lines of "I Loved February" or "I Miss Last Week."
Trio has declared August to be Texas month, sort of, on the flashy but never trashy network seen in more than 20 million homes. Trio is changing, too, however. When NBC acquired Universal recently, tiny little Trio came with it; thus it is now "a program service of NBC Universal Cable, a division of NBC Universal." So far, no measurable decline in quality has been noted. Cross-promotion of other NBC-owned channels is inevitable if it hasn't started already, and that could be in the vanguard of an overall dumbing-down.
Trio's Texas-themed programs begin tonight at 9 with "Texas: America Supersized," a report on the potential Texasization of American values under a man some consider a toxic Texan, George W. Bush. British journalist Christopher Hitchens, working with producer-director Mandy Chang, "presents" the hour, in the British style, putting a personal stamp on it, but is clearly there to learn along with us rather than to clobber the audience with reinforcement of preconceived notions.
Then, technically carrying on the "supersized" idea and the Texas theme, comes "Fat City," narrated by Larry Hagman and investigating why Houston has for three years running been declared "the fattest city in America" by a fitness magazine. Fatness rather than fitness is more than a health problem here -- though that alone would give it significance as an American archetype -- because it seems somehow endemic to the local mentality: "We like things big around these here parts."
"Texas: America Supersized" gets into its subject much more deeply than "Fat City" gets into its, however -- though that's not to say that one doc is better than the other. Hitchens is interested in Texas as the former stomping ground of Bush, who for a short guy certainly did some loud stomping while governor there.
Bush has his friends among the local gentry -- one of them being Kinky Friedman, singer-turned-politician and former leader of a group called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew-Boys. Friedman sings a few lines from an "Okee From Muskogee" parody called "I'm Proud to be an [Expletive] From El Paso," then tells Hitchens how important the cowboy image and mythology are to American life. Cowboys are "what the world is all about," and they're the people who lead where others follow, Friedman says -- citing as cowboys in spirit four very diverse historical figures: Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ and George W. Bush. No, he's not kidding.
Texans are not in lockstep loyalty to Bush or the Bushes, however. Larry McMurtry, the great writer ("Lonesome Dove") and spokesman for his state, who appears to have moved his Georgetown bookshop to a remote little plot on the plains, says Bush is not a real cowboy or a real Texan. "I don't like him at all, and I think his is the worst presidency of my lifetime," McMurtry says. He calls Bush a "Yankee patrician" who only masquerades as a Texan -- a "pure impostor" who is "a Yankee oligarch" with "a dictatorial temperament."
It sounds as if McMurtry ought to be lured out of Texas to appear on some of the political talk shows.
Lyndon B. Johnson, who made Washington very Texas-minded during his presidency, isn't mentioned until about a half-hour into the Hitchens show, and then only briefly. Compared with Johnson, Bush doesn't appear to have imposed much in the way of Texas culture on the capital.
Documentaries don't have directors of casting the way fictional films do, but if they did, "Texas: America Supersized" would have to be considered very well cast because of the colorful characters Hitchens encounters. Elaine Vetter, a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the group responsible for maintaining the Alamo (could you put your hand on your heart please?), says tearfully into the camera, "We love the Alamo. We love Texas."
Filthy-rich oilman Boone Pickens says, defiantly, "We shoot from the hip" in Texas, a view carried to an unsettling extreme by Jimmy Ritter, leader of a radical vigilante group called Ranch Rescue. They patrol the Mexican-American border like private police, raining terror down on some of the 500,000 Mexicans who try to cross the border illegally each year. One member brandishes a .45 that she boasts can shoot through bulletproof clothing.
"Fat City" is considerably less political than the Hitchens hour, but it is also consistently engaging and, in a different way, provocative. Narrator Hagman and producer-director Mark Jones couldn't resist a smattering of ridicule in their report, most of it in the editing, but they are for the most part concerned and humane about the obesity epidemic that for whatever reasons has hit Texas harder than the rest of the country, and Houston perhaps harder than the rest of Texas.
Not all fat people have the same story, not by a long shot. A single mother named Tiffany, who weighs well over 300 pounds, wants to have stomach-stapling surgery to benefit not only herself but her little boy, Jordan, who, on the day his mom enters the operating room, weeps in fear while resting on her stomach.
A man named Bud, who weighs 265 pounds, the least of any of the major figures interviewed on the show, considers himself a competitive eater, of all things (Texans are habitually, obsessively competitive, both documentaries note), and boasts of downing doughnuts and pizza and cheeseburgers. To win a contest, he gulps down a 5,000-calorie, foot-tall sandwich (with, o irony, an American flag planted on top) in about 20 minutes.
Both cooking and eating are competitive at a big Texas barbecue, where a hefty dude says cheerfully that if you shout, "Hey, fat boy!" at this event, "you're gonna have about 600 guys turn around and look at you."
Linda, now 275 pounds, has had enough of the rigors of weight loss. "I'm a very good person," she says. "I like who I am, and I'm not going to change myself for society. And anyone who thinks I should can simply -- bite me." Not all the evidence in "Fat City" is anecdotal, but this being television, the most memorable is. The occasional cheap trick is to be deplored, as when the director intercuts images of beef being sliced at the barbecue with shots of Tiffany's insides being sliced during surgery. And, sadly, we don't get an epilogue telling us how things worked out for Tiffany and her precocious little heartbreaker of a son.
But one doesn't come away from the TV set hungry. In fact both hours are fulfilling. They prove that "reality television" doesn't have to be an oxymoron and may actually increase a viewer's appetite for television with nutritional value and content that has no need for a warning label.