Masterpiece Theatre's new season.

Dissecting the mainstream.
Oct. 20 2005 5:50 PM

Masterpiece Theatre

Thirty-five years of unflinching refinement.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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Masterpiece Theatre, which begins an improbable 35th season on Sunday night, wants nothing more than to project a sense of literary suavity. Note, for one thing, the spelling of the word "theatre." Note, for another, its famous prefatory sequence, in which the camera lingers over leather-bound books as invigorating music by Jean-Joseph Mouret plays in the background. Christopher Sarson, the show's first executive producer, has said he discovered the music while vacationing at Club Med, where it was played to call the guests to meals. On Masterpiece Theatre, it is a homing beacon for middlebrows.

When considering Masterpiece Theatre, it isfirst important to stipulate that the series is not, in any important way, British. The shows may be English, but the reverence with which they are unveiled here is thoroughly American. Like Shakespeare in the Park, Masterpiece Theatre is first and foremost a curatorial institution devoted to the preservation of a cultural ideal. "We have kept an image of 18th- and 19th-century Britain alive in this country," says Rebecca Eaton, the series' executive producer. "If people envision England in those periods, it is because of what they've seen on Masterpiece Theatre." At its inception, Masterpiece Theatre producers exhumed the big names of British lit. By the end of the show's second season, viewers had seen dramatizations of the works of Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Henry James (twice), and for good measure gotten some of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Balzac.

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At the helm was Alistair Cooke. A more perfect match of host and subject didn't exist until Geraldo Rivera presented a special about Al Capone. With his twinkling eyes and cap of white hair, Cooke looked like he had been disgorged from an upper floor of Upstairs, Downstairs. Cooke, a native of Manchester, had drifted to the states in his twenties and become author of the BBC's Letter From America. A premier translator of the American scene for Britons, he abruptly reversed course. He would explain thick books to thick Americans. He would be both erudite and empathetic. After a particular labyrinthine installment of I, Claudius (1977), he reassured viewers, "Next week we shall see that this tangle of family passions and feuds simplifies into a main theme ... " No historical fact, no matter how small, would be left in doubt. During Elizabeth R (1972), Cooke gazed at Glenda Jackson's memorably brinyElizabeth I and remarked, "Some people must wonder at the almost clownlike mask that Elizabeth seems to be wearing."

Masterpiece Theatre was an anachronism from the start. Nonetheless, it is the product of a very specific cultural moment, and its echoes of that moment are what remain most interesting about it today. After TV's post-war "golden age," epitomized by dramatic showcases like the Kraft Television Theater and the Philco Television Playhouse, the three networks entered what was seen as an unlettered, fallow period. Network TV was a "vast wasteland," according to the 1961 proclamation of Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. This sort of hand-wringing prompted a wave of edifying programming on PBS. Sesame Street debuted in 1969, and the concert showcase Great Performancescame along three years later. Following the lead of the 1950s corporate benefactors, the Mobil Oil company, which was hoping to stave off nationalization, began underwriting Masterpiece Theatre in 1971. As Laurence A. Jarvik points out in Masterpiece Theatre and the Politics of Quality, Mobil executives saw British costume drama as a direct path to public good will.

This is amusing, because Masterpiece Theatre is best thought of as television for those who don't much like television. It caters to a small audience within the mass and is often lauded for saving TV from its crasser impulses. Whether TV needed saving is not quite clear. Even if we concede that the networks had faltered in the 1960s, it didn't take long for them to recover their footing. Norman Lear'sAll in the Family began two days after Masterpiece Theatre in 1971; Roots came along on ABC in 1977; and by the 1980s, cable networks like A&E and Bravo were plucking classy, British notes, too. It's interesting that PBS' reaction to the "vast wasteland" was not to reinvigorate TV drama—i.e., to make a better Marcus Welby—but to run away from television as fast as possible. The early Masterpiece Theatre shows resemble live theater (or "theatre") more than they do television drama. The source material was great books, and the host was a famous radio journalist.

Today, television needs no such propping up from the older media, and the idea that Masterpiece Theatre is superior to its commercial peers seems quaint. The Sopranos and Deadwood have appropriated Masterpiece Theatre's conceit of "literary" television—of the serial with novelistic flourishes. And both have performed the trick not by wrapping themselves in powdered wigs and Roman togas, but by plowing through the unlettered genres, using the structure of classical drama and nodding to the zeitgeist.

Masterpiece Theatre still draws a few million viewers a week. Its new season begins with a Sherlock Holmes mystery and Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, leading one to wonder if Masterpiece Theatre should consider its preservationist mission complete. Instead, it should borrow a few tricks from commercial television—or, better yet, go beyond it. Let Mike Leigh or Michael Winterbottom or Stephen Frears loose with a small budget and a high-def camera. Let them tackle a 20th-century book or else forget about the masterpiece entirely. If it offends the viewers who reliably turn up each week for costume drama, send them a new tote bag.

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.