Imagine that a social anthropologist from another galaxy drops into the middle of Mardi Gras, the Miss Texas beauty pageant or a 25th high-school reunion in Elmhurst, Ill., and is barraged with uniquely American sights and sounds. What would he make of us?
That is the perspective on American events and rituals Mark Frost hopes to present in Fox's new documentary series, "American Chronicles." "It's not journalism," said Frost, who wrote and directed the first installment and serves as the series' co-executive producer with his partner, David Lynch. "It's impressionism. It's like a big coffeetable book that has just come to life."
"American Chronicles" is the second series to come from Lynch/Frost Productions, the same team that produces ABC's off-kilter soap opera "Twin Peaks." For the first episode, airing Saturday at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 8, Frost took several camera crews to the Mardi Gras festival in NewOrleans last February and shot about 70 hours worth of parades, parties and other chaos and revelry that was edited down to a 22-minute show. In the future, they plan to shoot about 30 hours of tape per episode.
Richard Dreyfuss, who does not appear on camera but unofficially serves as Frost's unbiased social anthropologist and tour guide, provides the narration, complete with a fairly thorough history lesson about the origins of Carnival's coup de grace . Dreyfuss will reprise his narrator's role in future episodes. But mostly, Frost plans to let the slickly edited pictures, sounds and music evoke the flavor and mood of the event.
"We felt that the documentary form really has become an overly journalistic, anchorman-driven product that has lost any touch with it being a filmic, impressionistic experience," Frost said. "The idea is for us to turn an eye in on America and look at our culture and see who we are. Americans are notoriously ill-equipped for self-reflection. We're usually a very boisterous, outward-moving bunch of people, but we don't understand that much about ourselves or how other people perceive us."
With the Texas beauty pageant, Frost hopes to explore what we consider beautiful and why; the high-school reunion segment will observe how Americans cope with the passing of time. Other episodes will include a look at who we choose as our heroes, a portrait of Manhattan from dusk to dawn, the last day at Chicago's Comiskey Park and a visit to the 50th reunion of the Bikers' Convention in Sturgis, N.D.
Even though documentary series have not done well on TV in recent years, Fox is banking that the excitement and hype surrounding Lynch/Frost's "Twin Peaks," will rub off on its show. "We like to think that (Frost and Lynch) are trying to do for this (network) what they did for (ABC)," said Peter Chernin, president of Fox, when introducing the show to a gathering of television critics.
Frost said he will split time between the two shows, focusing primarily on the day-to-day production and writing of "Twin Peaks" while supervising the production of "American Chronicles" from a short distance. He insists that neither show will suffer because of the other. "I just don't have time to pet my dog," he said.
He and Lynch will jointly select the subject matter for the documentaries and offer advice on the scripts, rough cuts and throughout the editing process. Frost has hired a supervising producer, Gary Grossman--a former newspaper TV critic, coordinating producer at "Entertainment Tonight" and producer of the failed ABC late-night show "Day's End"--to run the show. Frost said Lynch plans to direct one of the first 13 "American Chronicles" episodes, perhaps one about an all-night truck stop.
Lynch and Frost are toying with expanding their TV company and splitting their time even further. Frost said they hope to develop a comedy in the near future and perhaps a miniseries or two.
This fall, however, Lynch-Frost fanatics can see all 90 minutes of the company's weekly output on Saturdays. Each episode of "American Chronicles," which follows Fox's hit show "Cops," will end just as "Twin Peaks" begins on ABC.
"Fox, fortunately for us, goes off the air at 10," Frost joked. "I haven't yet persuaded them to put a little subliminal message about switching to your local ABC affiliate. But I'm working on it."