From Nashville to Louis CK, the Americans - and their sitcoms - are coming

At last, Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation is heading to our screens - one of a host of great US dramas and comedies heading our way next year.

As far back as last summer, there was a buzz of tired happiness: “Finally,” we all screamed inwardly but also inevitably on Twitter, “it looks like BBC4 has acquired Parks and Recreation!” It was confirmed a few months later, and now, finally, the small band of Knope-lovers can sit with bated breath and watch our loved ones fall under the spell of Amy Poehler and her incredibly sincere and immensely funny ensemble cast.

Parks and Recreation is superb: it is one of my favourite American sitcoms of recent years, sitting very comfortably among the – very diverse –greats of the last couple of decades: Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Community, Seinfeld etc. But while it is one of the higher-profile and long-awaited acquisitions coming over to the UK in next year, it is by no means the only one. So what can you expect in the early part of 2013? There are a few gems, some honourable mentions, and a couple of DOAs. Let’s take a look at a few of the more interesting options.

Louis C.K. has engendered the kind of wild affection that only certain comics get after they’ve popped their clogs, so of course everyone is looking forward to his sitcom Louie (he created, writes, directs and edits the show), in which the stand up plays a stand up and is consistently, darkly funny. I caught up with the show after a recommendation from an internet-turned-real-life friend, and I am so excited it is finally crossing over.

If you’re looking for fine insights into the human condition, check it out on FX in January. (Enjoy a little dose of C.K. in the parody sketch of the show he made for Saturday Night Live back in November; Louie become Abraham Lincoln, and it was splendid). 

E4’s bought a couple of big, flashy American comedies, The New Normal and The Mindy Project. They’re both... okay. Much was expected of Mindy (Kaling, the terrifyingly talented former head writer at the American version of The Office), and she more or less delivers. The characters are taking a little time to find their feet, but it has a good gag rate, and a cast that’s easy on the eyes. The second import has the bigger potential in terms of garnering a big audience fast: Normal is a comedy about America’s changing demographics – in this case, a gay couple (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells) and their surrogate, a single mother from small town Ohio. Ellen Barkin plays her no holds barred conservative (read ‘offensively unfunny’) grandmother. If you need more convincing/dissuading, it’s from the people who brought you Glee

ITV2 refuses to be left behind and has bought its own series for January broadcast too. Up All Night, starring comedy big hitters Christina Applegate (hopefully reprising her role in newly confirmed Anchorman 2), SNL alumni Maya Rudolph and Arrested Development veteran Will Arnett. It’s basically traditional single camera sitcom, focusing on Applegate’s return to the workplace after taking time off to have a baby. Quick review: it’s solid, but for a show with such pedigree, it oddly lacks zing. You’ll enjoy it, I wager, but you won’t belly laugh, which is a shame.

More successfully made is Fox’s Ben and Kate, starring Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don ‘Miami Vice’ Johnson) and Oscar-winner Nat Faxon (he co-wrote the screenplay for The Descendants) as a brother and sister renegotiating their relationship after he unexpectedly returns to town. There’s a delightful supporting cast, not least the sweetest child actor ever, as well as the siblings’ best friends played by Echo Kellum and the very, very talented and reliable Lucy Punch. I have heard bad things about this show’s ratings, which doesn’t bode well for its longevity but I hope it finds a home because it is an assured, very funny and immediately likeable little show. 

More4 has shown its class in previous years with its acquisitions (The Good Wife, The Big C, and Scandal among others), and it tries to continue its hot streak with Nashville and Boss. An early disclaimer: Boss has just been cancelled after two seasons in the US (with rumours of a film to tie up all remaining loose ends), but it stars an on form Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago politician dealing with his city’s needs – alongside a new diagnosis of dementia. Now that’s a premise. Precious few traces of Dr Frasier Crane are to be found here, and it’s not a bad thing because he’s a compelling dramatic actor.

Nashville is unsurprisingly, about country music, but only in the way that Friday Night Lights was about football. That was a (tenuous) link to reveal that it stars Connie Britton, formerly of FNL’s Dillon, Texas, and owner of the prettiest hair on television, who plays a fading country and western star usurped by young blonde upstart Hayden Panetierre. It’s not going to blow you away, but it is mostly well-observed light drama. The promo also featured the quiet, resigned zinger: “thank God for autotune,” which earns it at least an hour of grumpy watching. 

Other good news:  E4’s superior comedies Happy Endings and New Girl (which just keeps on getting better) are coming back, as is Archer and then later in the year, Justified (5USA). Less happy news is that no one’s picked up Parenthood, which has been one of my favourite series of recent years. You could argue that this is a reminder that we can’t have everything we want (which is just the right kind of lesson an episode of Parenthood would deliver, over a swelling indie soundtrack). Roll on 2013!

Nashville

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution