Back when I used to get HDNet (before my idiot satellite provider dropped it), I would anxiously look forward to Sunday afternoons. For, in the pleasant quietude of the weekend, Stephen Fry awaited me with Stephen Fry in America.
Stephen Fry is unquestionably a talented comedian. He is also, however, a very talented writer, a brilliant analyst, and a hell of a traveler. Though the basis for his trip across America is that he was almost born there (his father turned down a teaching job in the States while his mother was pregnant), he transcends this to give an incredibly balanced, sometimes sentimental survey of a country that I generally can’t stand.
His trip consists of six parts that take him through every US state (and the District of Columbia, of course). The groupings of states are loosely based around a particular region or river or something, and not every state gets its due (poor Delaware gets glossed over, since no one wants to hear about DuPont petrochemicals or the Concord Mall), but most general regions get covered. The South is explored in depth, as is New England, the Midwest, the Rockies, and the land formerly known as the Wild West.
But what makes this more than an American feel-good ego trip is Fry’s sharp wit and openness to exploring America anthropologically. He is willing to accept that America is not his land, that there is value in its customs, that there is ignorance alongside great wisdom, beauty next to tackiness, wealth and poverty alike.
The sense of the whole series is summed up nicely by his assessment of a college football game:
(My favourite part is when he starts his description with the word “preposterous,” if only because it is a word that so very few Americans would ever think to use.)
It is, I think, the best summary of America by an outsider that I have ever encountered. In spite of exposing many of America’s flaws, the country comes out looking better for them. Fry doesn’t come to belittle. He doesn’t come to shame. He doesn’t come to look down from the much higher pedestal of European Culture and History. He seems to want nothing more than to see what the US of A is all about.
Thank you, Stephen Fry, for making me hate America a little bit less.