Faces of America (PBS) – Henry Louis Gates, Jr. follows up his African American Lives series by introducing a wide range of cultural figures representing a vast range of cultural and ethnic roots to their ancestors and their stories, from the old country through the journey to America. Gates traces the family trees of authors, actors, musicians, athletes, educators, intellectuals and discovers stories and figures that had been forgotten or lost through the generation and, through original documents and photos, offers them tangible connections with these people and their journeys. Along the way, he offers us a rich pageant of immigrant stories and reminds us that, if you trace the lineage of almost any American family back far enough, you’ll find an immigrant story.
Guests in this program include comedian Stephen Colbert, actresses Meryl Streep and Eva Longoria, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, director Mike Nichols, poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, novelist Louise Erdrich, writer Malcolm Gladwell, Her Majesty Queen Noor, television host/heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, and gold medal figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi. The four hour-long episodes are presented without supplements but with the sponsor announcements (which play like classy advertisements) intact.
Jim Henson earned an Emmy nomination for the half-hour TV short The Song of the Cloud Forest (1989), originally produced and broadcast as a part of his short-lived series The Jim Henson Hour and now the headline short in the new ecologically-minded collection Jim Henson’s The Song of the Cloud Forest and Other Earth Stories (Lionsgate). The story, told with original Muppet characters and a pair of human scientists in an artificially created jungle against primitive video chroma-key background, is a drama about a rare frog to save his very species from extinction. The bright colors, unusual storytelling and unreal effects of the highly imperfect video technology of the time adds a rarified quality to the piece, an expressionist natural history drama using completely artificial elements to make a plea of ecological preservation. And it works. The tenderly told tale is a poignant and lovely fantasy that injects a note of hope to an issue dear to Henson, who died a year after this production was broadcast. The disc also features three environmentally-themed episodes from other Henson TV shows.
Tom and Jerry Tales: The Complete First Season (Warner) – Tom has been chasing Jerry for over seventy years now in various incarnations in the theaters (where the original shorts earned seven Oscars) and on TV. “Tom and Jerry Tales” is the most recent reincarnation, a 2006 animated TV series of new cartoon shorts. Unlike the missteps made in a few big screen appearances, this is the original speechless cat-and-mouse duo, silent slapstick figures in a modern world. The cartoons are generally just variations on the same theme (Tom trying to catch Jerry, Jerry pulling pranks on Tom) in different settings and feature the usual exaggerated comic cartoon violence. No morals or messages here, just cartoon vaudeville. The limited animation of TV production doesn’t look too bad here, but neither the animation nor the humor matches the creative energy or comic imagination of the original shorts, and after all these years it’s become increasingly clear that Jerry the mouse is a diminutive little bully and a shameless thief who steals food to sate his gluttony and then sets up Tom to take the consequences, laughing and winking at the audience the whole time. “Itchy and Scratchy” (the cat-and-mouse cartoon duo from The Simpsons) only exaggerates what is inherent in these cartoons. The classic cartoons of the 1940s through the 1960s are all readily available, so this is for completists only.
The Amazing Captain Nemo (Warner Archive) – Irwin Allen’s attempt to recreate his Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for the post-Star Wars era of TV is a hokey mess of science fiction, pulp fantasy, cool underwater photography and cheesy set designs and special effects. Jose Ferrer plays Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, revived from suspended animation in the 1970s and drafted into service by the American military in what was supposed to be a weekly series of adventures but only managed three, originally broadcast as a three-part, 150-minute pilot. When the pilot wasn’t picked up, it was recut to feature length and it’s that edited 98-minute version released by the Warner Archive this month. The amazing of the title is wishful thinking for this spectacle of 19th Century mechanics in a 20th Century world of robots and ray guns (the term steampunk had yet to be invented but this would have qualified if only for its surface details), but Ferrer is all dignity and theatrical strength as the grand old man of the sea. Burgess Meredith co-stars as Professor Waldo Cunningham, the madman with a doomsday machine and a billion dollar ultimatum, and Jose’s brother Mel Ferrer guest stars as a saboteur (in what would have been the second episode) and Horst Buchholz is a real stiff as King Tibor of the ancient underwater kingdom of Atlantis, who conveniently speaks English (without a trace of an Atlantean accent!). Given the productions origins, it’s understandably episodic, not to mention narratively naïve and silly and with as much scientific weight as any Allen production: none whatsoever, in other words. Available exclusive from The Warner Archive Collection on the Warner website here.
Also new this week: The Official Inaugural Celebration (HBO), a two-disc collection that also includes the accompanying concert, and the 1986 made-for-TV documentary The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt (Infinity).