Nostalgia TV

Surfing time-travel channels, from 'Mad Men' to 'Shogun.'

By Steve Burgess 22 Aug 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about the screen, big and small, every other Friday for The Tyee.

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At least no Ali McGraw.

Plenty of nostalgia available for TV viewers this summer. AMC's critically acclaimed Mad Men with its painstaking recreation of the early '60s is an obvious example; very recent nostalgia is on view with this weekend's finale of the David Simon series Generation Kill, a flashback to the sweet, innocent days of 2003 in newly invaded Iraq. But there are other kinds of retro TV out there to find, some of them offering added period touches such as outdated production values and Ali MacGraw.

Way up the Shaw dial at channel 89, the folks at CLT (Canadian Learning Television) are unspooling epic TV mini-series. The mini-series was the prestige showcase of the era, but they tended to be expensive baubles and fell out of favour. Recently CLT ran the 1980 series Shogun, which created a craze for Japanese culture and Richard Chamberlain. Now they are mid-way through The Winds of War, a 15-hour Herman Wouk epic that hit the small screen in 1983.

Shogun, again

Shogun simultaneously takes you back to the world of feudal Japan and of late-1970s TV. Based on the James Clavell book, it told of an English sailor (Chamberlain) marooned on the shores of early 17th century Japan, where he gradually becomes a player in a power struggle between two great lords, as well as the emissaries of the Catholic Church. Naturally he must also fall in love and sometimes set his jaw grimly while cameras close in and music swells. This is the stuff of mini-series.

While the contemporary viewer's first instinct may be to snicker at some of the outmoded conventions of TV drama, Shogun also shows a respect for its audience now rare for network television, notably brief scenes that feature no subtitles even though the characters are speaking Japanese. It's hard to imagine modern TV producers trusting an audience to tolerate untranslated dialogue.

The good old '80s

As for The Winds of War, currently running Saturday nights on CLT, it is an impressive time capsule of big-budget television in the days before cable fragmentation and Internet incursion sapped the big-network mojo. This is big TV, with far-flung locations (including perhaps the only U.S. network footage of the Palio race in Siena). There's Robert Mitchum as naval officer Victor "Pug" Henry, and a supporting cast including Ralph Bellamy, John Houseman, Polly Bergen, Victoria Tennant and even Topol.

Then there is Ali MacGraw. At the time there was resistance to casting the then-mid-40s star, considered too old for the role of fresh-from-college Natalie Jastrow. Better reasons for not casting her quickly become apparent when she opens her mouth. She's abysmal. But all objections were overcome and thus the principals of The Winds of War battle not only the Nazis but the thespian attack of MacGraw. Happily many of her scenes are with love interest Jan-Michael Vincent, who doesn't show her up too badly.

Speaking of age appropriate, we also get a mid-60s Robert Mitchum exchanging longing gazes with a 30-ish Veronica Tennant. But at last he's Robert Mitchum. That covers a multitude of sins.

There are appearances by FDR, Churchill, Goering and Hitler himself. (Gunter Meisner chewing up the scenery in a role he'd played before -- in fact Meisner had once played both Hitler and his sister in a French film, L'As des As.) It's all fairly soapy, but it's not bad. And it sure is big.

Rat Pack flashbacks

Mad Men-style nostalgia is fun too. I am having rec-room flashbacks as I watch Don Draper's kids, who are approximately the same age I was at the time the series is set. (Watching the show, I find myself recalling the feeling I had as a kid that the culture was dominated by a sort of Sinatra-Jerry Lewis-Ray Coniff cabal, which would never loosen its awful grip on the mainstream.) But attempts to recreate an era will always carry at least a touch of the self-conscious. For the legit nostalgia you have to watch what they watched. Sometimes that means Ali MacGraw. It's certainly not for everyone.

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