BFS Video // 2008 // 354 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // July 31st, 2010
"I was so nearly born in America..."
British comic actor Stephen Fry tells the story of how his dad rejected a job at Princeton at the start of Stephen Fry in America. He's finally turned up here, though, at the wheel of a London cab. His goal for the six-part series is to travel to every state in the United States. Some, like Maryland and Delaware, he just drives through, but he manages to stop in most states to have conversations, visit interesting places, and crack jokes.
Stephen Fry in America contains six episodes on two discs:
* "New World"
Stephen Fry starts out by harvesting lobster in Maine, visits the New Hampshire primary, sees New England from the summit of Mount Washington, gets his own Ben & Jerry's flavor, and heads to Salem for Halloween.
* "Deep South"
Fry checks out the Mason-Dixon line and finds the actual marker, goes into a West Virginia coal mine, tours a Tennessee body farm full of decomposing cadavers for research, reluctantly rides a horse in Georgia, and attends a pardon and parole board hearing in Alabama.
This one covers the whole river, not just the state. He goes to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, visits the Angola prison, stops in a transcendental meditation city, and learns about the Hmong immigrants to Minnesota. He visits Morgan Freeman's blues club in Mississippi and tours Chicago with bluesman Buddy Guy.
* "Mountains and Plains"
Fry takes an aerial tour of the U.S.-Canada border and rides with the Border Patrol on the U.S.-Mexico line. He meets bison with Ted Turner, views Mount Rushmore and a nearby statue of Crazy Horse, learns about efforts to keep the Lakota language alive, and goes underground into a derelict missile site.
* "True West"
Stops include Western film locations in Monument Valley and Tucson, an Earthship in New Mexico, Los Alamos, Lake Powell, and the Mustang Ranch. Along the way, he takes a boat cruise and flies in a Flying Fortress bomber.
Fry takes in an all-woman open mike at Humboldt University, goes on a pot raid in Mendocino County, joins an effort to get Bigfoot named an endangered species, visits an Inuit whaling village, meets a Hawaii private eye, and swims with sharks (in a protective cage).
Stephen Fry's take on America is almost always upbeat, which can occasionally be jarring as he shifts gears and drops a mention of the Kent State tragedy or the Seattle suicide rate into otherwise cheerful proceedings. Mostly, though, his goofiness is surprisingly disarming, opening up conversation in all situations, whether it's an ice-cream development session at Ben & Jerry's, or a walk through a body farm.
The show also knows when to let people speak for themselves: Fry plays a minimal role in the segment at the Alabama pardon and parole hearings, with actual footage from the hearings carrying the segment. That footage of testimony has more impact than anything a narrator could add. The balance of the silly and the serious is handled well.
Fry seems to favor the iconic images of America. You'll notice that he spends more time in the West, a region known for its impact on the American myth. Fry's up on pop culture, even to the point of delivering a Clint Eastwood speech without error at a firing range (he still doesn't sound like Dirty Harry, though).
The picture is sharp and clear, making sites such as Lake Powell or Monument Valley look breathtaking. The music includes some of the ironic travelogue melodies you'd expect but is surprisingly varied.
There are no extras. The sort of details you'd find at the Travel Channel site would have been helpful as a text feature.
If you're looking for a family travelogue, this isn't it. Most of it is, but there are some naughty bits, particularly a trip to the Mustang Ranch and a discussion of horse breeding in Kentucky that includes the sight of a man with the state outline tattooed on his derriere.
In one segment of Stephen Fry in America, you'll notice that Fry has his arm in a sling. Thus, it appears that he was going back and forth between this travelogue and Last Chance to See, which shows Fry breaking his arm. Stephen Fry in America doesn't do quite as well as Last Chance to See, but it will still provide a fresh look at the country through an (almost) insider's eyes. The stories of Hmong immigrants or the sight of young Lakota students learning their traditional language, to mention a couple of memorable segments, are presented with the right combination of drama and optimism to reassure viewers that America will continue thriving.
Not guilty. Maybe Stephen Fry's dad should have taken that job.
Review content copyright © 2010 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BFS Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 354 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated