I recently watched two mini-series from when I was a teen-ager, and from watching them and remembering other series that I have watched during and since then, I have the imprerssion that the eighties was a special era. There were three shows that stood out for me:
There are of course a number of factors that contribute to this feeling. First, I was young, and while rather more well read than most of my friends in school I wasn’t all that worldly. And while I had read about some of the issues in the shows, they readings didn’t really have a visceral impact. Second, all three series were dramatic, with strong and sympathetic characters. Third, the characters tended to be multifaceted, with good and bad qualities. Fourth, most of the three were so powerful that they changed the viewpoints, and in some cases the behaviour, of significant portions of hte viewing audience.
First consider Roots. It originated in a major bestseller written by Arthur Hailey about his own family. It was the third highest rated show in history, and 85% of the viewing audience in the United States saw part or all of the series. People who had seen the opening told their friends, and by the finale most of the country was watching it. It brought awareness of the reality of slavery home in a personal way, while showing how the white “masters” were human and compassionate intelligent people, while at the same time having a blindness to the humanity of their slaves. The impact on the white U.S., especially my generation, was huge. It also made an amazing number of people interested in their family history, and the geneology craze continues today.
Shogun also came from a hit bestseller of the same name, written by James Clavell. It is also the only 1200 page paperback that I managed to read at one sitting! The mini-series covered a critical period in the history of Japan, when Europeans started arriving. It was also the end of a long period of warfare, and ended in the Tokugawa Shogunate of 1600, which eventually drove Western influences out of the country until the Meiji restoration in 1867. It also froze the culture of Japan and prevented any large scale warfare. Basically, the series covers the arrival of Dutch and British influence during the lead-up to the Shogunate, with battles, intrigues, and characters that are fairly close to the real players during the era. The major character, Pilot-Major John Blackthorne, is based on William Adams, who became a confidant of Tokugawa aswell as the first western Samurai and Hatamoto. After arriving there among the last surviving ship of a fleet of five, he never left Japan, but had a major influence on the culture.
Like Roots, more and more people stayed by their TV’s as the week went on. For many, it was the first conprehensive view of the Japanese culture (at least in an earlier incarnation), and it covered one of the most important events in Japan in the last thousand years (of which few westerners had the first clue). It was filmed entirely in Japan, and only two of the Japanese cast spoke English. In fact, the female lead Yoko Shimada didn’t speak English and had a voice coast. She still won a Golden Globe as best actress in a TV drama. I learned more about the culture, and especially how it looked and people behaved, than I had out of a dozen books. The book was great, but the series kept the spirit of the book and brought this world to life.
One important aspect was the way the audience viewed the events from Chamberlain’s point of view, as an Englishman thrown into a new world, unable to speak the language, and liable to die at any time because he didn’t understand the culture. Also, the Japanese dialogue didn’t include English sub-titles, but the great acting allowed you to understand an amazing amount, causing you to see these interactions from the viewpoint of Blackthorne. I also learned some basic Japanese from the series, including the meaning of wakarimas, wakarimaska, and wakarimasen.
Some say that sushi bars and Japanese restaurants became popular after the showing. It also made samurai, ninjas, and other characters tiresomely prevalent for a few decades after.
Masada had a more specific goal. It was about a branch of the Jewish Zealots, who after the fall of Jerusalem retreated to the mountain fortress of Masada, created by Herod in the Negev desert. This site is where modern Israeli soldiers were sworn into military service, and the symbolism of the place is due the the Zealots refusal to surrender to the Romans. You see, the Romans laid seige to Masada, and after several hellish and grueling years managed to storm the fortress via a giant ramp up the side of the mountain. When they arrived, the Zealots, as well as their wives and children, had suicided rather than be captured.
What it did for me was to develop an inkling of what it means to Jews to have their home back after two millenia, and an idea of the Israeli Defence Force mentality. The meaning is especially strong for those who remember the Holocaust, and those who fought for nationhood before the 1967 Six-day War. Finally, it also gives some insight into how people can become fanatics, or at least viewed as such.
As a story, it gave me a better insight into the time of the Zealots and the fall of Jerusalem, it had one of the best performances by Peter O’Toole, and Roman legions at war, especially when they are fighting with wierd and wonderful contraptions, is fun to watch. It was a great drama, and taught me about Jews before the Diaspora, and about Israelis of modern times.
I think the main reasons these series were so great included the following:
- they all addressed meaningful, substantive issues, and these issues tended to resonate with large segments of those watching,
- being miniseries, significant character development was much more likely than with a regular series,
- you learned a lot while being entertained,
- they were really well done, with good to great actors. For example, Richard Chamberlain, Peter O’Toole, Maya Angelou, Toshiru Mifune, Anthony Quayle, …
- in the early eighties, you either had movies, which couldn’t cover these subjects in great depth, regular TV series, which usually used uncennected episodes with no real development of a topic over a series of episodes, or fairly dry documentaries. The idea of a miniseries, which covered a topic on consecutive nights and which reached a conclusion in an organic manner, was new, entertaining, and refreshing. Combined with great and meaningful stories, this recipe drew in many people.
Today, of course, pretty well everyone thinks they have a good understanding of Japanese culture, and with the best electronics and cars which started to come out of Japan in the 70s and 80s there was at least a grudging respect for them. Regarding slavery in the U.S., it seems that many have accepted separate but equal cultures along with mutual accomodation, and of course the popular geneology bug popularised by Roots continues almost unabated (i.e. a good friend is really into it). With regards to Israel and the proud independance of the Sabras versus the Diaspora Jews just after the Second World War, very few gentiles care anymore. The State of Israel and the way it treats Palestinians has pretty well eliminated much of the sympathy for their plight during the Holocaust and the pograms going back through history, and the admiration of the Western world in the state they made in the 50s and early 60s. So today Masada’s symbolism matters not to the West, and to the some of the Palestinians and some other Muslims it might be argued that a repeat of that era might be a good thing.
I learned much that was new to me, or looked at it from a different perspective, by watch these three events. And I had a lot of fun doing it. It would be nice to have more shows like this, but in the internet culture, and with the decrease in viewership of the major networks, it’s not likely that we’ll see much to match the 80s.
Or maybe I’m just prejudiced towards what I liked as a teenager.