Supposedly, the conceit behind laconic British wit Stephen Fry’s six-episode tour of each of the 50 United States of America came from his nearly having been born an American. In the ‘50s, his father nearly took a job at Princeton University, but turned it down because he wanted his children to be raised in England. So it is that the looming, alternately gregarious and shy Fry states at the beginning of his show that he wanted to reconnect with “my other self, the strange American, Steve.”
The reality of this show sometimes has more to do with Fry exorcising the ghostly pop-culture spirits that constitute his (well, most any non-Americans’) connection to this country that once was almost his homeland. It doesn’t begin that way, fortunately, with the opening episode, “New World”, finding him good-naturedly hanging out on a fishing boat off the coast of Maine and later tying on a plastic bib for a lobster feast.
With the soundtrack’s dulcet tones setting a contemplative mood so different from the expected Travel Channel aesthetic, Fry toddles through New England in his black London cab, admiring the (sumptuously photographed) fall scenery. Brief stops at New Hampshire’s historic Bretton Woods resort and a turn in the test kitchen at the Ben & Jerry’s headquarters in Vermont give Fry plenty of opportunities to display his easy charm and affable intellectualism – he’s like the transplant professor whose class everybody wants to take.
A pity, then, what happens when Fry gets to New York. After driving into Queens (which he curiously identifies as “the primarily Italian borough of”), Fry stops into a classic, wood-paneled Italian-American social club and immediately launches into some kind of Sopranos-inspired reverie. His attitude is so disarmingly eager that the episode slips by without causing too much annoyance, but it does show the flaws inherent in the structure of Fry’s journey.
Fifty states in six one-hour episodes doesn’t leave much time for detailed looks into most of what Fry comes across. This is a fact that he can use sometimes to comic effect, as when he’s drivng through Delaware and chirpily queries, “What can one say about Delaware?” before just as quickly driving out of it again. It also means that, by refusing to do some boilerplate background about each and every state, is free to find some offbeat ways to visit them.
In one particularly vivid example from the third episode, “Mississippi”, Fry drives up the length of Old Man River and stops in St. Louis. After showing just a shot or two of the display-ready riverfront near the Gateway Arch, he heads to a nearby abandoned warehouse where several homeless people shiver around a fire – the show has moved from fall to winter by this point. It’s a smart interlude to fit in between all the grand scenery, and Fry is a game enough host that he chats with the homeless just as he did with the grand belles who entertained him in the Old South; though one can imagine it giving heart palpitations to the local Chamber of Commerce.
Similarly, in the fifth episode, “True West”, after indulging in a spot of gunslinging fun at an Old West theme show, Fry hangs out with a Native American family in Monument Valley. His ease and generosity of spirit, the refusal to mug for laughs or cheap emotional moments, allows the scene to unfold at a much slower clip than you would expect from a show with such a grueling schedule to keep.
Fry’s willingness to not just head off the beaten track but to also let fly his grumpiness makes for a more vivid experience at times, particularly when he drives through southern Florida. There, he lets the camera show the glistening white Art Deco towers and beaches while murmuring about what a “hole” it all is. While such honesty of spirit won’t win him any fans in certain parts of the country, it does make his exclamations of joy in certain scenes – cruising the surreal landscape of Lake Powell, snapping off a convincing Dirty Harry monologue while blasting away at a firing range – more winningly affecting.
Given Fry’s stated desire to understand his “strange American self”, the clash of cultures can’t be more brightly illustrated than in his visit to the “Iron Bowl”, an annual football match between Auburn University and the University of Alabama. After gladhanding the face-painted hordes and getting sincerely and surprisingly teary-eyed at the crowd’s rendition of “God Bless America”, Fry then nearly hits the deck, his eyes wide and fingers plugged in ears. Being British, he didn’t realize that in America, big football games require a flyover of shrieking military jets.