Another Argument for TV

But it all starts with the books

(Note: this post was originally written for my other blog

I was close to tears. It had happened twice. The first time I sat down to watch the premiere episode of the Masterpiece Theater version of Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit,” I discovered it hadn’t recorded. I was starting to panic when my daughter suggested I see if it was playing again. Sure enough, I found it on another channel later that week and set the recorder. But when I went to watch that recording, a different show appeared–and there were no more showing. Twice thwarted in something I had been looking forward to, I had to struggle not to cry about a stupid TV show in front of my daughter. What kind of example would that be for her?

It’s just . . . my life is busy these days, which is nice, but sometimes overwhelming. It’s so hard to find something that makes me purely and entirely happy, that doesn’t drain me or make me think of the ten thousand million other things I should be doing. Sadly, I have so much obligatory reading these days–my daughter’s school book club, manuscripts people have asked me to blurb or review, novels my editors have suggested I read for inspiration, etc–and while much of it can be enjoyable, I still feel pressure to push through everything quickly. And when I’m tired, sometimes I just want to stare at a screen.

But most TV just isn’t very good. There a couple of shows I record, but, in general, flipping through the channels depresses me. Which is why a new Masterpiece Theater classic makes my heart leap with excitement. I may be the only person who considers “Andrew Davies” a household name. Know who he is? If you’ve seen an Austen or Dickens adaptation on TV, odds are good he wrote it. He wrote the teleplay for maybe the most sublime mini-series ever, the Colin Firth adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which I can’t watch without thinking of my friend who told me (back when it first aired) that his old, eastern-European-born mother had informed him that Colin Firth was “the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.”

But my love for Masterpiece Theater (Theatre? Shall I be British about it?) goes back much further than that. I think it started with “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Anyone else remember that one? I was just a kid, but I was captivated by the romantic entanglements in the servants’ quarters and among the nobility. The servants’ stories were more exciting and sexier. That’s the main thing I remember. And the acting was incredible.

 (A side note: I believe all the recognition neurons in my brain have been used up by my ability to spot familiar British actors as they move from one movie or TV show to another. I can tell you that the butler in “Upstairs, Downstairs” is also the lover in the film version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I can’t recognize or recall the name of a single mother from my youngest son’s class. I hate my brain.)

The series that completely blew my mind when I was a kid was “I, Claudius.” If you had the good fortune to have watched that one, you know exactly what I mean. It’s the answer to anyone who’s ever said that TV will rot our minds and is a lower form of entertainment than books or movies or radio or anything. Nothing is better than “I, Claudius.” (I’ve read the two books it’s based on, both by Robert Graves, and as good as they are, I still say the mini-series is better.)

Then again, my love for “I, Claudius” is inextricably wound up with my love for my grandmother so I may be biased. She and I would excitedly call each other up the day after each show aired to talk about it and wonder what would happen next. She loved to read as much as I did–maybe even more–and I think that the best Masterpiece Theater adaptations are aimed at readers like us, people who like to sink into every detail of a book, not just watch a plot unfold.

Sadly, Granny’s not around for me to discuss these shows with her anymore, but I always think of her when I hear that Masterpiece Theater music. (Anyone else miss Alistair Cooke?) In recent years, I’ve had the great joy of voraciously soaking in every minute of “Bleak House” (which reminded me why I love Dickens and made me wish I had the time to reread every one of his novels–“Little Dorrit’s” having the same effect on me) and “Cranford” with Judy Dench. Since I was an English major in college, I actually knew who Elizabeth Gaskell was and had read some of her books, although not Cranford–I read that one AFTER watching the mini-series.

Maybe that’s what “Masterpiece Theater” is ultimately–TV for us English Literature nerds. You don’t watch it the way you watch most TV, lazily letting it pass you by, thinking of other things, happy to switch your brain off. No, when I watch a mini-series like “I, Claudius” or “Bleak House,” I want to immerse myself in it, watch every second, not miss a thing. And then I want to read the book (or usually reread it) to recapture that sense of pleasure in being lost in something so all consuming it blots out every thought about what to make for dinner the next night or how I didn’t get enough work done that day.

Masterpiece Theater isn’t a replacement for reading great books, but it is a reminder of what a pleasure it is to read them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my two favorite authors, Austen and Dickens, are so well represented in the MT archives. The things I love about them–their wonderful characters, their engaging plots, their vivid descriptions and ability to involve you emotionally–are all attributes that make great drama. It’s nice to be able to enjoy them even when I don’t have the energy for anything more than collapsing on my bed.

By the way, my “Little Dorrit” story has a happy ending: Rob got a DVD of the entire thing because he’s a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. (And, no, we’re not allowed to lend it out so don’t ask.) So for the last few nights, I’ve shut out everything in my life that drives me crazy or worries me and bathed in the exquisitely moving, dramatic, and occasionally agonizing world of Charles Dickens. And I’m not even halfway through it yet! Thank you, Masterpiece Theater! Don’t ever go away.

(On another matter entirely, please check out my post on sending your teenager with autism to college, at if you’re interested. Thanks.)



Filed under reading, television

3 responses to “Another Argument for TV

  1. I miss Alistair. The new girls… not the same.

  2. Claire

    I’m disappointed in Laura Linney. I’m usually a huge fan and she seems really stiff and uncomfortable introducing LD. She has all these weird angles, where she’s talking over her shoulder to the camera–all very kittenish which feels wrong for Masterpiece Theater.

  3. And Gillian, during the Austen series, was spooky.

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