My husband’s and my media consumption definitely has gone up during the pandemic, to the point that we may have actually run out of engrossing British mystery series. From time to time, we leaven our escape with actual learning in a desperate attempt to preserve our self-respect. Lately, three programs have succeeded. All three are on paid services, but we found them worth watching and if you have the cash, I expect you will too.
New Deal for Artists is a 1979 film narrated by Orson Welles. It features both archival footage and interviews with then-surviving artists (e.g., John Houseman, who sits on his balcony overlooking the beach as he reminisces) who were part of Federal One, the artists’ employment initiatives of the 1930s Works Progress Administration. It’s interesting, detailed, textured, and makes a powerful argument for arts work for social good, one that stands up now as well as it did in the Great Depression. You can stream it by buying a ticket via one of the participating virtual cinemas; ours cost $12. Highly recommended.
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is an eight-part series on AppleTV. I was subscribed a couple of years ago as a perk for buying something Apple, and they’ve kept extending the subscription without charge through the pandemic. The series adds up to about seven hours devoted to the music and political culture of one year, which was pretty remarkable in terms of popular music albums released, from the Doors’ last album to Bill Withers’ first; from John Lennon’s Imagine to Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain; from Carole King’s Tapestry to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—and many more.
The series covers a wide range of music expressing movements for racial justice and against the Vietnam war, framing a counterculture and condemning establishment culture. Certain emblematic artists become the focus in each episode. If you were around then (as I was) you may be interested to discover which strands of that year’s music were braided into your experience. (Sly Stone features prominently in several episodes. I remember him well, but I hadn’t quite seen him in the bright light the series shines.) And which were not (I don’t think I ever heard a Donnie Osmond song, but on the other hand, that year I was working as a draft counselor and designing antiwar posters, so we never crossed paths). The newsreel and performance footage and archival interviews are very effective in evoking the period, and highly recommended not only for those who experienced those times but for those who want to understand a previous moment of political ferment and revolutionary aspirations. The first thing my husband and I said after finishing the series was how much we’d love to see every single year given the same musical treatment.
Rutherford Falls is a new comedy series on Peacock TV, NBC’s streaming service. It has a free tier and two levels of subscription service. You can watch the first few episodes of the show for free, but need a paid subscription to see them all unless you binge-watch during your free trial week. Rutherford Falls debuted last month, making headlines for Sierra Teller Ornelas’ role as the first Native American showrunner for a TV comedy. The container is familiar from countless situation comedies: interlocking friendships and conflicting alliances, small-town scale and a certain gentleness, even when treating hard subjects. But the contents are anything but familiar, turning on the two main characters’ conflicting passions for historic preservation, one determined to honor the legacy of the ancestor who gave the town his name, the other to honor the (fictional) Minishonka people on whose land the town was built.
I’ve seen documentaries exploring the urgent question of whose history is told and respected, whether focusing on Confederate general statues or buried legacies of slaughter and oppression, but so far, this first season of Rutherford Falls does a better job than any of them of exploring what’s at stake. The real star is the wonderful Michael Greyeyes, playing the head of the Minishonka casino housing a small cultural center, who is shrewd and frank and wonderfully successful in bringing the truth to light. This is an excellent example of commercial programming created by people who have ambitions that don’t stop at earning ratings and laughs.
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” performed live in 1972.