Stephen Fry in America

StephenFryinAmerica500

Review by Hugh Lilly

In the television series Wild Weekends, Theroux reveals an obsessive, kooky America by seeking out its most zany, cult-like denizens. The historian Simon Schama, in his perplexingly-titled The American Future: A History, adapted from his book, looks to the States’ future through the prism of its past. Like his fellow Britons, the comedian, actor, and author Stephen Fry has recently ventured across the Atlantic to explore the USA. In Stephen Fry in America, he successfully blends those two kinds of travel journalism, engaging with the weird—such as a segment on voodoo in New Orleans—and the more intellectual, by grounding one in every three or four segments in an historical and sociological context.

Fry, who opens the programme by saying he was “very nearly born an American—and therefore ‘Steve’,” travels the length and breadth of the country, “from California to the New York island / from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters,” as Woody Guthrie sang. Starting in the “New World,” (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont) he stops off in New York, DC, Pennsylvania, Florida, and then makes his way up the Mississippi. He zigzags vertically up and down the continent, border to border, until he reaches the opposite side, where California juts into the Pacific—then, finally, to what Homer Simpson once called “the freak states,” Alaska and Hawaii.

Along the way Fry meets an engaging, varied cast of Americans, some famous—like Morgan Freeman in a bar in Louisiana—and some not-so-famous, like a couple of former hippies who live in a decommissioned nuclear bunker in New Mexico. An avid Twitterer, Fry indulges his passion for technology, talking to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in New York City, and Apple design guru Jonathan Ive in San Francisco.

One of the gimmicks is that he drives up and down the country in a black London cab, apparently the same kind of car he drives back home, which marks him at once as British, and attracts a lot of comments from those he interviews. Although it cannot accommodate any deep exploration of a particular state or group of people, the six-hour series is able to present a picture of America as a multitudinous land of extremes, brimming with idiosyncrasies and disparities yet somehow forming a coherent, grandiose whole. Fry is a wonderful tour guide, continually witty and amusing. As an exploration of modern America, this series stands as one of the most accessible and entertaining of its kind to date.

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