TV UK, 12 February

Angels in America was a ridiculously overblown, overhyped and self-consciously worthy luvviefest, but let's not hold that against it.

Dolan Cummings

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One line in Angels in America brilliantly captured the self-consuming nature of political correctness: ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to get offended’, said the AIDS-suffering main protagonist when his black ex-lover took umbrage after the former explained how the angel who had crashed through his ceiling had complained that humans were disrupting the cosmic peace with all their migration.

Yes, there was a lot in there – and I haven’t even got on to Al Pacino’s homosexual straight man, or the Mormons. But then it did go on for six-and-a-half hours (Channel 4 on Saturday and Sunday nights). Billed as a panorama of American society in the 1980s, Angels in America was a ridiculously overblown, overhyped and self-consciously worthy luvviefest, but let’s not hold that against it. If this had appeared as an unfashionable series in one-hour episodes late at night on Channel 5, I’d be singing its praises to high heaven.

Of course the plot, such as it was, was ridiculous. God has been AWOL since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and so the angels want this guy with AIDS to put a stop to human history, or something. (Full disclosure: I might not have given the play my full attention for the whole six-and-a-half hours.)

But the various characters and the relationships between them were brilliantly conceived, and the script was often excellent. And even if the play’s politics were unsophisticated, the writer Tony Kushner was intellectually generous enough to make Al Pacino’s arch-Reaganite bad guy the most fully human character of all.

The casting of Emma Thompson as the angel, though, surely had more to do with Americans’ weird ideas about English women than her suitability for the role. At one point, when she was giving a particularly ac-torish speech, it occurred to me that they had drafted her in for Shakespearean gravitas. Well, you can’t win them all.

If Tuesday’s episode of Faking It (also Channel 4) is ever shown in the USA, it will set Americans’ view of English womanhood back decades. The protagonist Laura Jane was incredible: a superposh choirgirl from Cambridge who refused to have her hair cut on the grounds that her intact locks were as important to her as her virginity. Her mission was to pass herself off as a ‘rock chick’, and she was to be aided by ‘Harry’, another remarkable piece of work, who was allegedly the real thing.

In fact Harry was far more cringe-makingly childish than Laura Jane, which isn’t surprising when you consider that the whole idea of a ‘rock chick’ is an embarrassing and patronising media invention.

Laura Jane’s ridiculous stand in the salon, including a threat to pull out of the programme, was quite impressive when you consider how desperate some people are to get on TV, and Harry provided the perfect example of that. The choirgirl’s decision to sing her own (dreadful) song instead of Harry’s, on the grounds that she didn’t want to be used in the furtherance of Harry’s career, was perceptive as well as brave.

Of all the reality type shows, Faking It is the least predictable, because it is constantly undermining its own premises. Rather than conforming to stereotypes, its participants get caught between them, and the whole process is interesting as much for what it says about the producers’ expectations as for what it tells us about the participants themselves. In next week’s episode, a stray mongrel is trained to compete in Crufts. Another sideways look at the British class system, then.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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