I wasn't at all surprised to see John Paul Davidson listed as series producer and co-director of Stephen Fry in America (2008). Davidson served the same functions on Michael Palin's wonderful travel documentaries (Himalaya, Sahara, etc.) and this six-part program is almost exactly like those, albeit with a different host.
The basic concept finds multi-faceted Fry traveling across America in a London taxicab. (Fry actually owns and drives one back in England, though this isn't the same vehicle.) The opening titles suggest he'll visit only the contiguous United States, but in the last episode he visits Alaska and Hawaii as well, allowing for stops - however briefly - in all 50 states.
That determination to include every single state in the union is one of the program's many problems. It's entertaining overall and never dull but ultimately it comes off as disappointingly generic and almost awkwardly politically correct. Despite flashes of what might have been, it's colorful, pretty to look at but ordinary.
The Blu-ray disc presents its six one-hour shows on two discs. There are no extra features, but the video/audio quality is excellent.
Moving across America in a vaguely westerly direction, the six episodes are: "New World" (covering Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.); "Deep South" (Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama); "Mississippi" (Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota); "Mountains and Plains" (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas); "True West" (New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada); and "Pacific" (California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii).
As you can probably guess looking at the above paragraph, that's a lot of ground to cover in just six hours, little more than seven minutes per state on average. In fact some are dismissed in less than a minute of airtime, and instead of truly searching for each state's unique characteristics, the series all too often falls back on tired clichés: Michigan = automobiles, Wisconsin = cheese, Minnesota = ice fishing, Kentucky = whiskey and thoroughbreds, etc.
Unintentionally, some states come off even worse. One of my complaints about the Michael Palin shows is their frequent lack of spontaneity: these things tend to work best when things don't go as plan and Palin and his crew have to improvise. (For example, Palin's seven-day trip aboard a dhow and its Gujarat crew in Around the World in 80 Days.) Frequently, however, his itineraries take him to carefully planned if unusual places designed as eccentric, humorous little adventures. Stephen Fry in America feels even more overly scripted. In Tennessee, for instance, Fry visits a "body farm" at Knoxville University, literally a depository for rotting corpses in varying states of decay used by criminology researchers and students. It's a fascinating and disquieting sequence, certainly not the sort of thing you'd find in a Lonely Planet guide, but what the heck is it doing in a travel documentary? And how is it representative of its region? Tennessee, the "Body Farm State?"
The packaging proclaims Fry a "comic genius," the kind of platitude that always makes this reviewer leery. I've been a fan since his wonderful performance in Kenneth Branagh's film of Peter's Friends (1992) and it turns out Fry is a fascinating character off-screen as well: a novelist, literary critic, audio book narrator (including the entire Harry Potter series), a political activist, electronics technophile (his Twitter account has more than a million followers), and much more. He would seem the ideal choice for this sort of thing while personality-wise he makes an intriguing contrast to Michael Palin. Where the former Python is reserved and almost invisible, the six-feet-five-inch Fry can be biting and acerbic. Sadly, little of this is in evidence here.
Indeed, very little personality at all comes across in the series. Too often Fry simply admires the view or smells the regional cuisine exclaiming, "How extraordinary!" - viewers could make a drinking game based on his overuse of that expression - and then it's time to move on. After an entertaining but unexceptional first episode, I was delighted that in "Deep South" Fry seemed to show more of himself - getting utterly hammered at a whiskey distillery ("I think little Stevie needs to lie down now," he says) and expressing utter disdain for the entire City of Miami and its touristy beaches. In another state, one bordering Canada (North Dakota, if I remember correctly), Fry travels with a humorless border guard patrolling the empty wilderness. "I see no crowds of Canadians," Fry observes, "desperate to get in[to the United States] and taste the air freedom." Unfortunately, there's not enough of this.
Instead, there's a lot of "Idaho is famous for its potatoes"-type narration. While describing the spectacular plateaus of Monument Valley, I began to wonder if Fry thought he was doing something for radio; the audience can see it's spectacular. It's television!
Besides encountering actor Morgan Freeman (at his Clarksdale, Mississippi blues club) and Ted Turner (at his Bison ranch, a sprawling estate like something out of Giant), the peculiar first episode has Fry meeting then-U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But the famously liberal Fry - an ardent opponent of the Iraq War - is all smiles amidst Romney's conservative constituents, and has nothing but admiration for what he perceives as a grass roots-type political process. In the "Deep South" episode he meets the 100-year-old granddaughter of a slave owner who implies blacks were much better off before the emancipation. Again, Fry is all smiles. Maybe he's simply being the polite foreign visitor, but I was hoping that his very position as an outsider would allow for greater candor. A British perspective on the American way of life seems to have been the series' original intent, and yet that's what it lacks most.
Video & Audio
Filmed in high-definition, this 1.78:1 presentation is up to contemporary television standards. The widely disparate locations allow for much pleasant variety. The Dolby Digital stereo, likewise, with no alternate audio or subtitle options, and there are no Extra Features, either.
Though not as meaty as I would have liked it, I still found Stephen Fry in America to be breezily enjoyable and consistently interesting. Perhaps Fry himself realized his program's shortcomings. In 2008 he announced More Fry in America, a five-part series to include material time constraints on the original wouldn't allow. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.