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Surfing in more ways than one
By RUTH BELOFF
08/30/2014
A TV aficionado takes a post-Emmy look at a year’s worth of entertainment.
 
Once again the Emmys have been and gone, once again HOT did not air the star-studded ceremony, and once again I am wracked with disappointment, as I fail to understand why the cable company would deny its loyal viewers the pleasure of enjoying the event that honors those very programs that we have been watching all year long.

But be that as it may, once again I take a look back and highlight some of the TV shows that have had an impact on me these past 12 months.

One of the most fascinating programs that I came across, I happened upon when I was channel hopping. Like some of my most memorable finds, it was something I didn’t think I would have been interested in watching, but it caught my attention and I was hooked. Ironically enough, this program that I happened upon while channel surfing was about – surfing. Aired on the History Channel, it was the 2004 documentary film Riding Giants, and it was riveting.

Tracing the origins of surfing, from a young Hawaiian with a wooden plank who skimmed the waves to contemporary superstar Laird Hamilton who has navigated 60-foot giants, the film chronicles the upsurge of the spectacular sport. Not only is the film a fascinating history of surfing, but the photography is simply astonishing.

As film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, “Before seeing Riding Giants, my ideas about surfing were formed by the Gidget movies, Endless Summer, The Beach Boys, Elvis and lots of TV commercials.

Riding Giants is about altogether another reality.”

And as I watched those amazing feats of surfing splendor, I kept asking myself, “Where are the cameramen? How did they manage to film such extraordinary footage?” I’d like to see a documentary about the photographers who capture such exhilarating close-ups of such extreme sports.

Another program I fell upon was also on the History Channel. It was another topic I didn’t think I’d want to get into, yet it turned out to be one of the best programs I have ever seen. It was the eight-part 2012 docudrama called The Men Who Built America, and it was superb.

It chronicles the lives and times of five men who literally (and I mean literally) built America after the Civil War: railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, financier J.P. Morgan and automaker Henry Ford.

Reenacting the ideas and events that shaped the nation and using (unfamiliar) actors in the roles of the fathers of invention, the Emmy Award-winning series plays out one of the most riveting, action-packed adventures I have ever seen. These men were sheer geniuses, and what they did to forge the course of history was nothing short of astounding. Often ruthless, always relentless, they were such visionaries and such intrepid men of action, it takes your breath away. In addition to building America from the ground up, these titans also contributed vast sums from their unfathomable fortunes to promote education, health care, culture and social welfare in the US.

As their stories unfold, other historical figures enter the picture – who either helped or hindered them – such as Henry Frick, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and president Theodore Roosevelt.

Each episode is interspersed with comments and insights by contemporary captains of industry such as Donald Trump and Alan Greenspan.

Powerful music, a beautifully written script and superb narration by Campbell Scott (the son of actor George C. Scott and actress Colleen Dewhurst) add further impact to an already dynamic package.

Another intriguing program I came across by chance, this time on Channel 8, was the two-hour 2011 TV documentary When Pop Culture Saved America: A 9-11 Story. This is a fascinating look at how popular culture – i.e., TV, movies, Broadway – dealt with the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on that fateful September 11 of 2001. Interviews with a wide range of entertainment personalities reveal that in light of the devastating event, movie and TV scripts had to be rewritten and adapted to either include or delete references to terrorism, film footage that featured the Twin Towers in New York had to be edited and hosts of live television shows had to determine how to address the situation to their grief-stricken, terror-stricken audiences.

And on Broadway, directors and their casts deliberated over whether or not to proceed with their productions. It was decided after a day or two that, indeed, the shows must go on. Some of the actors interviewed admit how difficult it was for them to put on a brave face and perform on stage but ultimately how gratifying it was to know that they had raised the spirits of those audience members who had come to see them and to forget, for a few hours at least, that they had just experienced the most heinous attack in their country’s history.

A program I definitely did want to watch was the 2008 documentary series that was just up my alley called Pioneers of Television.

Comprised of many episodes, the ones I saw were “Science Fiction,” “Crime Dramas,” “Westerns” and “Miniseries.” Each episode deals with the early shows in each category, such as Lost in Space, Twilight Zone and Star Trek; Dragnet, Police Woman, I Spy and The Rockford Files; The Rifleman, Bonanza, Maverick and The Big Valley; and Roots, Dallas and The Thorn Birds.

With original footage from the shows and interviews with some of the actors, writers and directors – either current or archival – it delves into the concepts and the characters of each series and illustrates how every series, in its own way, broke new ground in the burgeoning realm of television. As someone who grew up watching all those shows, I found it fascinating to hear what the actors had to say about the roles they played and to find out some of the behindthe- scenes stories of how the programs came to be – or almost didn’t.

As James Garner, reportedly one of the most likable actors in television, said in his commentary, “I just want them [the audience] to remember me and smile. That’s all.”

I do. I’m smiling now.

And speaking of smiling, I have a personal anecdote associated with one of those programs that cracks me up to this day.

The miniseries The Thorn Birds, based on the novel by Colleen McCullough, aired for the first time in 1983. A good friend of mine who had read the book was very anxious to see the miniseries on TV and talked about it a lot to her two young children, gearing them up to watch it with her. She told them that The Thorn Birds was a very exciting story about a family that lived in Australia.

The appointed time arrived, and my friend and her two kids sat down to watch the first episode of the much-anticipated miniseries. But when the title of the epic appeared on the screen, her eight-year-old son was shocked by what he read.

“The Thorn Birds?!” he exclaimed. “What kind of name is the Thorn Birds? I thought it was the Thornbergs!” Now I’m laughing.
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