the above image is from the opening titles for the Fox TV show New Amsterdam, which I've been watching with slightly but steadily decreasing interest in its usual TViness, but increasing interest in its geographical sensibilities. The opening titles show a quick animation of New York City getting built up from its original shape as a village at the lower end of Manhattan.
The premise is that a Dutchman from the seventeenth century goes to the New World and is killed there saving an Indian woman. She turns out to be a shaman who brings him back to life and keeps him alive until he finds his one true love. So he lives through nearly four centuries, marrying many times and fathering sixty-three children, only to become an NYPD homicide cop in the present. One day, in the pilot, he has a heart attack and dies on a subway platform. When he revives later, he realizes that this means that his one true love was on that subway platform, and that this is the beginning of the end. Now all he has to do is find her.
Here's a trailer that sums up the show's premise:
It's not a very good show, although Lasse Hallstrom directed the first episode. The acting is not strong (the Danish lead actor's accent isn't convincing, and affects his affect), there's no chemistry between the lead and the woman who might be the one true love (she gets the boot at the end of this first short season), and there's nothing particularly unusual or standout about the show.
Except for the use of the city in history.
This is something that was done to a lesser extent with the show Angel, which took place in Los Angeles and featured a 250-year-old vampire who had lived in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Angel frequently took us back to earlier eras--in other places as well as LA--showing us the protagonist's involvement in historical moments. But it was never done as quite such a love song to a particular city.
In New Amsterdam the protagonist, who names himself alternately "Amsterdam" and "York," stays in New York throughout his immortality, and possesses both generalized and personal knowledge of the history and happenstances of each place. What Amsterdam knows about the city is layered, often subtle, and broad in the field. The amount of research they must do for this show is awesome.
The immortality conceit allows a very intimate, and story-driven, view of history which is satisfying to the narrative-obsessed on every level. What's even more satisfying is that this intimate and story-driven view of history is utterly tied not just to place, or to city as imaginative construct, but to geography, in all its weird and complex splendor.
By "geography" here I mean it all; all of it: social history, metonyms, reputations of people and places, the strange continuities that remain in a place even after the public stops going there, architecture and arts, physical transformations and how to track them, land use, recreation, the replacement of one population by another, the way people in a place are always doomed to repeat that place's history, as if geography were destiny, which, as we all know, it is.
The makers of the show eschew the cheap, shallow history of time-travel shows like "Quantum Leap" or "Dr. Who," which understand a historical era in terms of costuming and a single zeitgeist. Instead, they make choices which are often as interesting and complex as they are TV-awkward and clueless. For example, in the present, Amsterdam's sidekick/confidant is his sixty-year-old son, Omar. Omar is a biracial (black and Dutch) former trumpet player who now owns a club where Amsterdam hangs out. Amsterdam married Omar's mother in the late forties, against the desires of her wealthy, conservative, black father.
All of which is kind of amazing. Amsterdam may well be the first major TV protagonist (of a non-ensemble show) to have a biracial child. BUT, the jazz from the relationship comes from the role-reversal: Omar is now old enough to be Amsterdam's father, and acts like it. This role-reversal only enables Omar to be the magical negro, while giving Amsterdam a kind of racial cred he couldn't get any other way. And Omar seems also to be tied to New York in a way inexplicable for someone who was once a musician and presumably traveled a great deal. His ownership of the bar is a device that keeps him in place, available at every moment to serve Amsterdam. So, that line of inquiry is ambivalent about racial issues.
Or another example in a recent episode: Amsterdam is a painter during the era immediately preceding WWI. He's a cheesy representational painter (of course) during modernism; and they stupidly have him altering his own personality to become tempestuous and to have him cheatin' on his wife. Gah, moronic stereotypes.
But what that episode is actually about is the origins of ... you guessed it ... organized crime. Amsterdam is investigating a mob hit on the school-teacher scion of a (strangely) Dutch-named crime family who happens to look exactly like Amsterdam-the-pre-war-painter's son. Throughout the episode the usual flashbacks are to a time when Amsterdam--whose wife was starting to age (he himself remains perpetually 35) while his son, Rosie, was becoming a man--had an affair with an artist's model (gah! moronic stereotypes!)
Amsterdam confirms that the murdered boy is actually his great great grandson through his son Rosie, and tortures himself throughout the episode that his home-breakin' ways were what drove Rosie to crime. Then, once he's solved the murder, he sits down in the last few minutes of the show with his aging grandson--the murdered boy's grandfather--to find out why Rosie became a criminal. Well, guess what? It wasn't Rosie at all. Rosie was a schoolteacher in the teens and twenties, and it was the grandson who turned to crime during the great depression. "I made some choices" the old man says, and that's that.
I'm not sure how much of this was intentional--because after all, the acting and direction and even writing in the show is muddy--but in this one episode they've layered a number of factors and influences guiding the outcomes of individuals within movements of history. This crime family comes from a cultured, but presumably economically unstable artist's family. As is very realistic with such families, the son becomes a teacher, another culturally, but not economically, capitaled sector. So during a time of severe economic downturn, the grandson--who presumably has access to his parents' cultural and social capital, but not to any sort of economic safety net; and who lives in a city vast enough to support minor crime networks within neighborhoods--turns to organized crime.
Two generations later, the family's wealth is assured and the family returns to the cultural and social luxury of a low-paying, high-ideals job like teaching. It's all in there: the class and economics issues; Americans' strange love/hate relationship with high culture and learning, and violence; our contempt and reverence for the arts; our need to relate the great movements of history to our small, personal faults and triumphs, only to discover that the great movements were caused by great movements instead, and our individual choices were as drops in the ocean.
And there's even a lovely throwaway in there: the son's name, "Rosie," is short for "Roosevelt," which suggests that he was named after Teddy, but also suggests much more subtly that Amsterdam has a history with the New York Dutch Roosevelt family.
Every episode has stuff like this.
So I'm torn about this show. I'd love for it to get better, for it to become a conduit for this kind of thinking, and a quality drama as well, but I'm not hopeful. I haven't heard much buzz about the show and it doesn't seem to have legs. Oh well.