On "Stephen Fry in America" : A humanizing journey through an inhuman landscape

To perceive is to suffer

-- Aristotle

Empathy was what made red paint run like blood in the veins, or a blue sky fill the lungs with air.

-- Rachel Corbett

If one were to place humanity under a microscope, and gently peel away the superfluous baggage of history and geography, one would find, I believe, under the withered, pale husk, a seed of the grain of our humanity. And perhaps, if we were to consider every seed as a possibility of our traits, we would surely find that one common pod that we all share -- we are travelers. As one, as individuals, or as civilizations, humans have been traveling since their birth. Whether it be with a basic survival instinct, or as a more sophisticated engagement with the world, humans are born curious, eager to explore their environment, to search, to discover, to change.

We have developed our arts, and our sciences, to aid this primal need. We traverse through unknown lands with our poets, authors, painters, and musicians; and our aviators, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs have built the systems of transport for this world. For though we may belong to the world, there is not yet one human who has walked every landmass, drunk from every stream, scaled every peak or swum to the lowest depth of every ocean! Our industrious minds have however, found a vicarious solution to the actual viz. travelogues. With a sturdy travelogue to curl up with on a winter's night, we are instantly transformed into dashing explorers, navigating treacherous waters and beasts alike. It is no wonder that the first explorers were the erstwhile rockstars of their era, and continue to be a source of wonder and amazement in our world.

The proliferation of technology, and the resulting democratization of the creative process, has given us mixed results. On one hand, there is the cookie-cutter travelogue, best represented as an excursion through a checklist, not a living, breathing land. This is the more popular version, although it is not quite sure whether it is the quality or the popularity that drives us to create more of such travesties. And on the other hand, there are the true accounts of explorers, people who ventured forth without a list or a static map, and let their curiosity guide them on their journeys. These accounts are a very intimate look into both the explorer and the explored. Their words are what transform us, not through a temporary sojourn, but through the building of a lasting habitat in our minds.

Stephen Fry's travel-documentary, "Stephen Fry in America" (2008) falls somewhere near the latter part of this spectrum. Being a polished, professional endeavor by the BBC, it surely follows a script, a map of progression. But that is where the similarity with any other travel "show" ends. Unlike locally produced fare, this show is an outsider's look into the US. To add to the oddity, Fry travels the entire length and breadth of the country in a London cab - epitomizing the romantic fascination this country has with 'road-trips.' The absurdity of the mechanics is complemented by the personality of the host himself -- although, in his case, it would be more proper to address him as a "guest." He makes a regular stop in each of the fifty states, but his destinations are anything but regular!

He attends an election rally by Mitt Romney (then running for President), a Wiccan ritual, a deer hunt, a tea party and even drives Sting in his cab around Manhattan - all in the first episode. His other destinations include a horse ranch in the deep south, a coal mine in the Appalachians, a former missile silo in Kansas, a brothel in Nevada, an improv club in Chicago, a Bigfoot hunt in Oregon, an authentic "goodfellas" bar in New York, a body farm in Tennessee (I never knew there were such things!) to cite a few. Fry brings his trademark wit to the proceedings, coupled with an element that is often missing from such professionally calibrated journeys -- empathy.

There is no doubt that the star(s) of this show are not Stephen, or his BBC unit, or the producers. The real focus of this journey is on the land and the people that inhabit it - be they the Caucasian immigrants who now call it their home, or the numerous indigenous cultures that belonged with the land. Fry becomes our voice, our conscience, as he interacts with a Lakota elder who is struggling to keep their language accessible to future generations, or as he mingles with the social elite in Dallas at a glitzy, showy fundraiser. As the honored guest, he is welcomed to the family table in the South, whereas in the aforementioned fundraiser, he has to earn his place, literally, by performing to the crowd. What these events say about our society is left for us to answer. Fry does not pass judgements. He does not let his personal identity as a gay man or an atheist, come in the way of his attempts toward understanding. Every person he meets is treated with equal respect and is given time to tell their story, be it the rancher couple who braves wolf-attacks near Yellowstone, or the hoboes who occupy the "Riverfront Hilton" in St. Louis.

Another fascinating aspect of the series, and the stories it tells, is that although the series was shot in 2008, the problems, the issues, the voices are all alive and kicking in the present! Whether this reflects on the cyclical nature of things, or on our own inertia to bring about change, only Time will tell. Today, more than ever, we need an exemplar like him who is ready to walk around and listen to all voices that are clamoring to be heard!

Watch it!

("Stephen Fry in America" is available to view on Netflix, and to read as a companion book that goes into further detail about the road-trip.)