We gave it an A-
There are times when one is riveted by news about Sharon Stone’s love life and underpants. There are other times when one thinks the temperature of today’s hothouse celebrity journalism is responsible for widespread cultural heatstroke. For those other times, these two shows — one taking the witty, Britty high road; the other silly-walking along the cable low road — are just the tonic. In Clive James’ Fame in the 20th Century, James — a droll and astute British television journalist whose dry delivery belies his swift sense of humor — thwacks a path from the Wright brothers to Babe Ruth, Judy Garland to Richard Nixon, while describing how the media mold human beings into Famous People. The footage in this eight-hour series is choice. But even choicer are James’ throwaway observations. On Douglas Fairbanks Sr.: ”He had athleticism the way some dogs had rabies.” On T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia): ”He had a knack for backing nervously into the limelight.” Listen carefully — and you’ll laugh out loud.
By contrast, you won’t so much laugh as chuckle, in an ironic, stupid sort of way, at the trashy, pop-eyed premise of Rumor Has It, which whips up lame-o, goofball questions about celebs in a blender of quiz-show constructs — multiple choice, true or false, etc. — with three contestants, a cartoon of a host (Brian O’Connor), and questions along the lines of, ”True or false about Johnny Depp: Depp means ‘village idiot’ in German.”’ In the wrong mood, the thing is a groaner. In the right one, this show does to the celebrity gossip industry what occasionally needs to be done: clangs it over the head with a rubber mallet. Oh, and by the way, the answer is True. Clive James’ Fame in the 20th Century: A-