Of course, an article like that becomes instant clickbait when I see that on my feed from The Atlantic on Facebook. To give a summary, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of the PBS series Masterpiece, which has been responsible for showing the United States classic BBC series such as Downton Abbey, The Jewel in the Crown, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and I, Clavdivs, described the problem about not airing more show featuring more works from American novels. First of all, she said American novels are too tied up in movie rights. Second of all, and she admitted that she was generalizing, American novels do not have the components to make for good television. To quote Spencer Kornhaber’s paraphrasing in the article, “But Eaton also theorized that American literature is often too dark, too weird, for Masterpiece and maybe for TV more broadly.”
Interesting point. Let me start about by saying that Masterpiece has been on air for 44 years and was called Masterpiece Theatre. It was all about featuring series based upon English literature. Alistair Cooke hosted it for its first 21 years. Look at the opening credits from 1983, and tell me any attempt was made to accommodate American literature.
This half-hearted attempt at inclusion that PBS is trying to do by dropping off the “Theatre” and every so often bringing in Wharton or Agee is nonsensical. Masterpiece‘s audience love the BBC dramas. They are the romantic Anglophiles. As far as television entertainment and literature, English is best. And if the Masterpiece executive producer is this biased, wouldn’t it be better to create a separate American Masterpiece franchise with an executive producer who would know how to advocate for the material?
I agree with Eaton as far as too many books being tied up in Hollywood contracts. But just because her staff and she can’t handle the themes of American novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin does not mean they do not make for good television. In fact, the United States needs dramatizations of books like that right now, considering all that is happening around us. There is nothing wrong with television that makes the viewing public think and encourages the public to read. And I thought that was part of what PBS was supposed to be about…learning. At least that is what Sesame Street taught me.
I am sitting here thinking of all sorts of authors that are ripe for adaptation for the small screen: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Richard Wright, Willa Cather. I could go on. All of them tell compelling stories. It just takes creative individuals to take what is on paper to translate it to a visual medium. But we, the viewing public, have to demand it just as much as we demand the BBC dramas.
So, does English literature make for better television? Subjectively, it is a personal preference. Objectively, no, it doesn’t. We just need different people in American television who understand American literature and a public willing to cough up the funds to make it happen.
If you think my idea is viable, feel free to contact PBS, and tell them what you think. If you are a PBS viewer, don’t forget to support your local station with whatever you can contribute.
Meanwhile, enjoy this episode of Monsterpiece Theater.