Defending Brideshead While Attacking the Media

08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reading news stories about politics that bungle the facts and repeat partisan talking points as if they're reasonable charges can be frustrating enough. But when you read media coverage of something truly unimportant -- like entertainment -- it can be truly maddening. Maybe it's because so much coverage of movies, music, books, TV and the like is rooted in opinion (are the three Star Wars prequels a blot on Lucas or actually wildly successful?).

Sometimes of course, the media just gets it wrong. In a New York Times business article about Steven Spielberg, they incorrectly refer to Spielberg having directed "more than 50 movies." Huh, I thought. A quick check of showed what happened: the reporter probably just glanced at the number of credits under "director" in Spielberg's entry and considered their work done. In fact, under "director" IMDB includes episodes of old TV shows, video games, home movies he made as a kid (Spielberg is a wunderkind but he certainly didn't direct his first feature film at 13), upcoming projects that may or may not happen and even uncredited work on the opening segments of a 1984 TV miniseries. It's a lot more accurate to say Spielberg has directed more than 25 movies, depending on how you count a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie and TV films released theatrically overseas. But in any case, you can shout out, "You're wrong!" and feel justified. Even in entertainment news, there are such things as facts.

USA Today made a similar mistake. In covering the vampire novels of Stephenie Meyers, they compared the 8 million copies of her books sold to the "28 million" copies of Harry Potter books in print in the US by JK Rowling. Huh? That was the print edition and now online they've quietly changed it to "140 million copies" of Harry Potter books in print in the US alone. Again, unlike a movie review or a debate over whether Barack Obama is presumptuous by taking an overseas trip that John McCain previously blasted him for NOT taking, there's no question about the facts.

Then we come to Brideshead Revisited and 80s TV. A new two hour feature film version opens wide today and while the reviews have been mostly mixed to poor (with Rex Reed notably loving the film), that's for everyone to debate. It's harder to swallow a feature in the New York Times that takes a second look at the classic British miniseries and finds it wanting. But what can you say? An opinion is an opinion. I for one prefer the British miniseries to both the new feature film AND the novel it's based on. (I enjoy Evelyn Waugh but much prefer his nasty satires like Scoop and Decline and Fall and the racist but funny Black Mischief to the more staid Brideshead Revisited.)

All you can do is read a review you disagree with and hope to find some whopper of an error or an opinion so out of whack it undermines what they are claiming. This review came close with one offhand reference to the fact that Brideshead Revisited was only a moderate success in the UK when it first aired. Really? The DVD extras vaguely refer to the miniseries being a "smash" hit in the UK. But then they also refer to the theme song hitting the Top 10 of the pop charts when it only reached #48. A quick call to the British Film Institute found no firm evidence either way though a look at some of the weekly TV charts when the miniseries first aired seem to indicate the Times might be right about this.

Then comes an opinion so clearly wrong, I felt another "gotcha" coming on. Writes the New York Times:

"It is worth considering that "Brideshead Revisited" appeared during -- to borrow a phrase of Waugh's -- the "dead years" of television. Long-form narrative had yet to wield its powerful influence on the medium. In 1982 American viewers had a choice between the sensuous exploration of love, fidelity and money that "Brideshead" provided and "The Facts of Life" (or "One Day at a Time" or "T. J. Hooker")."

Frankly, this is absurd. You might argue the jiggle years of the mid 70s were a low point for broadcast TV, thanks to hits like Charlie's Angels and Three's Company. But in fact, the end of the 70s and the early 80s were unquestionably a high point of quality television only matched by today. (And we need 100+ channels to equal what they accomplished with three -- and PBS.)

On TV in the late 70s and early 80s was Hill Street Blues, arguably the most influential and important TV show of all time. It was far from alone. You could also watch St. Elsewhere, Fame, Little House on The Prairie (quite a good show in the early years), The Paper Chase, Rockford Files, Lou Grant (dated but acclaimed at the time), Rumpole of the Bailey and the groundbreaking Cagney & Lacey. And sitcoms! The sitcoms of that era leave the current poor crop in the dust. M*A*S*H had seen better days, but it was still M*A*S*H. Then there's Barney Miller, Taxi, Cheers, Buffalo Bill, Newhart, Soap, Fawlty Towers, and the equally brief but equally brilliant Police Squad.

But why compare Brideshead Revisited to a sitcom like The Facts of Life? Perhaps because the late 70s and early 80s was a highpoint for the miniseries the likes of which we may never see again -- yet another reason why arguing that Brideshead only looked decent because everything around it was dreck is foolish. Other miniseries from the late 70s and early 80s include Alec Guinness's remarkably subtle work in Tinker Tailor Solder Spy and Smiley's People, plus Shogun, Holocaust, The Duchess of Duke St (from the people behind the landmark Upstairs Downstairs of the early 70s), Masada, Nicholas Nickleby, Reilly Ace of Spies and more. Throw in TV movies and you're looking at The Day After, Special Bulletin, The Bunker, A Woman Called Golda, Something About Amelia, Bill (w Mickey Rooney), Gideon's Trumpet w Henry Fonda, Guyana Tragedy w Powers Boothe, Friendly Fire and Playing For Time w Vanessa Redgrave.

Now does that really sound like an era best exemplified by The Facts of Life, One Day at a Time and TJ Hooker? In fact, you have to willfully ignore the best and the brightest of the era, the most acclaimed shows and many top hits in order to pretend that 1982 was a bleak time for television. Besides, I love my twee, languid, oh so pretty miniseries Brideshead Revisited almost as much as I love Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the other brilliant TV of the late 70s and early 80s.