The Guardian 23 November, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun November 27 — Sat December 3

For those of us who are not members of that highly dedicated sector of society whose lives are inexorably tied to classical music, it is necessary from time to time to be reminded, in order to overcome our inverted snobbery, that the "high" arts did not come out of thin air but arose out of "popular" culture, the culture of the masses. Mozart’s music, for example, at one and the same time broke new ground while drawing on the music and dance of the people. His compositions reflected in part the popular dance trends of the time while he astounded and sometimes scandalised the aristocracy with his "naughty" operas.

The American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein had strong feelings for the people of the streets and tenements, of New York City in particular. His most popular and best known work must be West Side Story, a take on Romeo and Juliet set in the New York slums.

Music: Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (SBS 10.30am Sunday) was filmed at Sydney Town Hall to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SBS Television and the 25th anniversary of SBS Radio. Written by Bernstein in the 1960s, the Chichester Psalms brings together his trademark street rhythms and the Psalms of the Old Testament. Kick off Sunday with half an hour of mental stimulation. It can only do you good.

Talk about popular culture. Sunday night sees the return of Kath and Kim in a one-off "almost a feature", Da Kath & Kim Code (ABC 7.30 Sunday).

"More exciting than any airport thriller", says the ABC publicity, "Da Kath & Kim Code is an excursion into the unexplored crannies of life at Lagoon Court, Fountain Lakes. It’s a tale of corporate greed, a puzzle of biblical proportions, and an emotional roller coaster that will churn your stomach … literally."

In other words, the usual Kath and Kim. I sometimes find them side-splittingly funny, and at other times somewhat insulting. Satire walks a fine line.

Global Village (SBS 6pm Monday-Friday) is a great program. Over the course of 30 minutes you are given marvellous insights into other cultures. The Last Family Boarding House (Monday) is set in the heart of Paris in a boarding house run by Les Marronniers. Its rooms are rented to the elderly, apprentices and students. Some stay briefly, others stay there their whole lives.

Life On The Tightrope in the same program is about the Guerrero family in Colombia, a family of tightrope walkers. They do not use a safety net, even when they perform their most dangerous act, the pyramid. Truly, it’s good value.

It is unusual for a program about a socialist state not to be heavily anti-communist, but that is what A State Of Mind (SBS 8.30pm Monday) attempts. Of course, it has its moments, but it nonetheless treats its subject, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, seriously and attempts to grapple with the philosophical issue at the heart of the program — the relationship between the individual and the collective in society.

It follows two young gymnasts through months of rigorous training leading up to the big event — the annual Mass Games, in which gymnastics, dance, history and culture combine in a spectacular event in the capital Pyongyang. Worth a look.

Hot Docs: Jabe Babe: A Heightened Life (SBS 10pm Tuesday) is a documentary that challenges mainstream so­ciety’s obsession with genetic and social perfection. The program explores the personal and medical experiences of Jabe Babe, who has a life-threatening genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome.

It follows Jabe as she works and lives on the margins of life, defying society’s expectations of the "normal" feminine body and sexuality. There is a curious turn of events when the specialist treating Jabe informs her that due to advances in medical technology there is every likelihood that she may have a normal life expectancy.

I found Blackpool (ABC 8.30pm Wednesday) a bit trying. This condition was aggravated further by the main character Ripley Holden (David Morrissey) who appears to have no connection to those around him: he’s someone straight out of a British pop musical of the early 1960s. The show is a six-part musical murder mystery, and early on Holden bursts into a mime of Elvis Presley singing "Viva Las Vegas".

It’s not terrible, just kind of irritating. I don’t know how they sustain it over six episodes. Perhaps it gains a momentum of its own along the way. It has some pluses, notably Sarah Parish as Natalie, Ripley’s wife.

Also at 8.30pm Wednesday is The Storm (SBS), a documentary that investigates the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina that devastated America’s Gulf Coast. Producer/reporter Martin Smith asks the question why the Bush administration failed to protect thousands of residents from a natural disaster foretold.

He also exposes how and why the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one of the most efficient federal agencies in the 1990s, was crippled by cutbacks and downgrading and subsumed in January 2003 by the new Department of Homeland Security.

It begins with dung beetles pushing around a piece of dung in the guise of a football match. Creature Comforts (ABC 8pm Thursday) is hilarious. Made by the Oscar-winning British animation studio Aardman, it features finned, furred and feathered creatures from the animal world ruminating on sport, animal magnetism and bedtime (see what happens when a tortoise suffers from insomnia). If you could use a laugh have a gander.

The cast alone held out the promise of quality Australian drama: Anita Hegh, Julia Blake, Tony Martin, Peter Cummins, Adam Murphy and Sally Cooper. It opens with a dream sequence that includes a shadowy figure stealing eggs from a nest and a woman nursing swaddling clothes. Such symbolism smacks of cliché: the biological clock ticking down. I put that aside.

The first scene is of a couple, man and woman dressed in a way to suggest middle class sophistication, in a swish restaurant. But when we hear their conversation there is no articulate parry and thrust: it’s more a spiteful exchange between two 14-year-olds. He — "Maybe it’s about you not wanting me". She — "I do want you". He — "You’re not acting like it". She — "I love you".

And so in The Forest (ABC 9.30pm Saturday) we are introduced to a series of couples living sham existences.

As the camera moved in and out of their lives of despair, alienation and deception, I found myself constructing my own scenarios. Such as: what if the main character, Anita Hegh’s Ashley, is actually in a coma in hospital and what we are witnessing is her unconscious mind going over the events that led to her being there. This would handily account for the dream-like nature of the show.

But then I reasoned that if I’d drifted off so far from the story, then something was wrong. Maybe the fault lies with me but these people made me give up on them in despair. Have a look. You may see it differently.

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