TRUE CONFESSIONS : Fifteen Years of 'Biography'
Alleva, Richard, Commonweal
The A&E television series "Biography," now in its fifteenth year, has become a many-tentacled phenomenon. There are Biography magazine, a line of books, a Web site, videos, and even a cable channel. The last seems redundant since A&E itself tends to be the "Biography" channel. And with its substantial backlist, the show has been able to perfect the art of recycling. Though any given episode on any given night may be a repeat, "'Biography' Week" is always new. An hour dealing with, say, Al Capone, previously broadcast during "'Biography' Mobster Week," may reappear during "'Biography' American Dreamer Week." In the new pantheon, his celebrity neighbors are no longer gangsters but, perhaps, F. Scott Fitzgerald (dreaming with words, not bullets), Flo Ziegfield (dreaming of chorus girls and moveable staircases), and two other dreamers.
But how good are the individual shows? The blunt answer: if the subject has been dead for more than a century and a half, the show is probably going to be a dud. The closer the subject's birthdate is to the mid-twentieth century and the more he or she has attracted the attention of cameras and microphones, the better the chances that this particular episode will be absorbing. Disraeli trumps Cleopatra because Disraeli was photographed; Edward VII trumps Disraeli because the king got photographed by movie cameras; Edward VIII trumps Edward VII because the later king was not only photographed but sound recorded; Churchill outdoes any king because he knew how to pose for the movie camera and shade his voice for the microphone; and Madonna trumps Winston because she knows as much about media as he did, and is sexy, too.
But does the actual content of the life count for nothing? "Biography" scriptwriters churn out copy that is always simple, straightforward, and unrelievedly vanilla. A high school senior's term paper might contain more idiosyncrasy. But if, while listening to all this bland unfolding, you're also watching interesting film footage, the narration can no more sink the show than a droning tour guide can sabotage the spaciousness of the Grand Canyon.
In truth, it is not so much the wording of the "Biography" scripts that annoys but their standardized structure, a narrative procrustean bed on which the lives of the famous are sometimes stretched, sometimes shortened, but always neatly chopped into five equal portions.
Act I: "It was 1935, the height of the Great Depression when a young married couple, the Presleys..." The birth of our hero, a skimming of childhood with highlights of the usual traumas (young James Garner almost strangling his stepmother, the teenaged Billie Holiday arrested for prostitution). Then a career, the focus for all that crazy energy, is stumbled on and..."little did anyone in the talent agency know that the gawky young talent so in need of polishing would soon be burning up the world." Commercial break.
Act II: A big initial hit paves the way for even bigger endeavors. "Marlon Brando had conquered Broadway. Now he was heading for much richer but riskier dealmaking in the City of the Angels." Commercial.
Act III: Mounting success until two paths diverge in a thorny wood and which will our hero take? "And now Marilyn was about to meet her most challenging assignment yet and in a role that might strip all her defenses away." Commercial.
Act IV: The crisis brings ultimate triumph or the beginning of a downward slide. Mussolini teams up with Hitler. Billie Holiday goes back to drugs. James Garner decides to make the "Rockford Files." Saint Peter finds the answer to Quo Vadis? And as a result of this triumph or catastrophe...
Act V: The End. Miserable or peaceful declining years for the deceased subjects and, for those still living, thumbs-up testimonials from friends and retainers: "Gary Busey is off drugs now for good. I've never seen him more determined to clean up his act and. …