During its infancy, TV believed it could be a bellwether for contemporary culture. No, not just the pulpy pop variety, but the high brow and critical aesthetic as well. Hours were devoted to classical music, news gathering investigation, focused documentaries, current events, and other "important" facets of fine living. One of the most obvious extensions was the art appreciation program, a series or presentation that chose to showcase the talents and personalities of the influential media figures of the day. Beginning life on CBS before eventually spending a brief time on the other two major broadcast networks, Omnibus originally set out to highlight all the various artforms - painting, sculpture, poetry, theater, music, film, writing, and all the permutations in between. Along the way, it introduced viewers to such future luminaries as Leonard Bernstein (who practically made the showcase his own) and such past masters as Orson Welles. Now, digital technology is bringing modern viewers a chance to see this seminal showcase for themselves. Naturally, what played well back in the '50s and '60s seems rather dull and dated today. Not the content so much as how it is offered up.
Collecting several segments from the famed series, the two DVD set of Omnibus: American Profiles sets out to provide some of the best and brightest bits from the show's long run. A small caveat - some of these are not complete "episodes." Instead, they are segments culled from longer programs, the sequences involving ballet dancing and other bits of art information removed or missing. Of course, for many, that won't matter as names like Philippe Halsman and Sugar Ray Robinson will have little impact initially. Others will shiver at seeing Frank Lloyd Wright and Dr. Seuss discuss their craft. All in all, we are treated to 14 installments, each centering around a different subject, to wit:
Frank Lloyd Wright
Pearl Buck - "My Several Worlds"
E.B. White - "A Maine Lobsterman"
Sugar Ray Robinson Visits Stillman's Gym
James Thurber - Man and Boy
How the F-100 Got Its Tail
Leonard Bernstein's Musical Travelogue
The New York Times
Toby and the Tall Corn
Grand Central Station: Portrait of a Railroad Terminal
Dr. Seuss Explores The Museum That Ought to Be
New York's Night People
Classic TV doesn't always translate into entertaining television. Just because we hold something near and dear to our nostalgic heart doesn't guarantee it will give us the same pleasures it provided back then. Such is the case with Omnibus, an earnest and honest endeavor into the world of art and international events that is so stoic and staid it's like watching statues struggle. You really have to be a fan of the individuals featured here in order to get any kind of enjoyment out of the experience. A good analogy is a PhD dissertation on a beloved subject. The premise and information keep you interested. The production is rote, routine, and often quite dull. With host Alistair Cooke - who often comes across as one of those stern lecturers lost in an ivory tower - and an intellectualized ideal that makes everything sound self-important, it's hard to get past the presentation. Indeed, when looking over the list of individuals interviewed and featured, it's difficult to glean the good from the merely adequate.
For example, Nobel Laureate William Faulkner is inherently interesting, considering his limited availability in said medium. He comes across as charming if slightly off-put by the whole experience. Similarly, the James Thurber segment does a delightful job of highlighting the writer and his wry wit. E. B. White's "Maine Lobsterman" is a far cry from what the author is famous for (the kiddie kindness of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little) while Pearl Buck continues her tradition of being both mildly amusement and literarily grating (any high school kid from the '60s and '70s knows exactly what's being discussed here). Sadly, sequences that should shine just don't. Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the iconic boxers of the era, gets to suffer from a sour overview of the considered sweet science (who knew pugilistic violence could be so lifeless) and Frank Lloyd Wright, for all his architectural achievements, can't help but sound like an old coot. Leave it to Leonard Bernstein and his tempting travelogue and celebrated art portrait photographer Philippe Halsman to make things more manageable.
On the other hand, fans of social anthropology and urban landscapes past will particularly enjoy the second DVD. It is loaded with looks at New York City both standard (Grand Central Station) and slightly surreal (a labored Dr. Seuss discusses museums). Again, there is a desire on the part of the producers to turn everything into a scientific study, to remove the glamour and glitz and get on with the wordy wind-bagging. Still, there's no denying the allure of a lit up 42nd Street, the old fashioned cars and clothing giving the entire area a wonderful circumspect allure. Similarly, when experiencing what The New York Times used to be, one can't help but wonder what happened to journalism, and newspapers, in general. If anything, Omnibus makes for a wonderful bit of modern free association. Like The South Bank Show (Britain's brilliant overview of its own cultural - and world - highpoints) one imagines what today's version of the series would serve up. More celebrities? Elusive writers? Unknown artists? Outsider craftsman? As a showcase for the thinkers and sages of its time, Omnibus is a nice capsule. As a standalone slice of old TV amusement, it's more wearing than wonderful.
Let's face it - the show was made fifty plus years ago and suffers from the same passable preservationist ideals that mar many classic TV series. Not everyone was Jackie Gleason or Desi Arnaz. As a result, the 1.33:1 full screen image is barely passable - especially on a HD set-up. The image is foggy, muddled, and mired in electronic noise. It's passable, but far from polished or perfect.
Old tinny mono from the late '50s was never a friend to modern sound recording and technology. As a result, the mix provided here is mired in a lack of dimension and depth. No amount of Dolby Digital tweaking can cure this ancient approach of its inherent problems. We can hear the narration and conversation, and that's all that really matters.
There is a 16 page booklet included which discusses Omnibus and its cultural impact. This is the only bonus feature offered here.
Over the decades, as our brains have gone from carefully tuned treasures to over amplified and stimulated ADD addicts, something like Omnibus was bound to suffer. It becomes a kind of period piece joke, a way for The Simpsons to make a point about how the medium adapted to the current - and then changing - needs of its determined demographic. Even with its stiff presentation and problematic approaches, this is still an intriguing curio. It deserves a Recommended rating for pure novelty and nostalgia value alone. Time will not treat a show like this kindly. On the other hand, for what it represents and who it champions, Omnibus: American Profiles is perfectly acceptable - as long as it's taken on its own terms.
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