What Jane Austen and HBO have in common.

Policy made plain.
Dec. 9 2005 6:27 AM

America's Jane Austen

Don't even try to guess.

Larry "Jane" David. Click image to expand.
Larry "Jane" David

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 centuries later, the joke is on the reader. Thanks to novelists like 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 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.

Advertisement

The 19th century was a time when Britain mattered. And then, as now, the countryside, not London, was 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 large 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 as 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 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 further 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-creator 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 the show over, 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.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.