Impressionists is too sketchy

It doesn't often happen on TV, but once in a while a miniseries should really be a maxi. The Impressionists (A&E, June 3, 9-11 p.m., and June 4, 8-10 p.m.) needs another two hours at least. It focuses on that cluster of French artists who changed the history of art by breaking with the past in such a way as to upend Western aesthetics and open the doors for modernism.

What the film does not do, unfortunately, is place these breakthrough visionaries into the spiritual, social, and political context of their times. It doesn't fully explain how art after Monet, Pissarro, Degas, and Renoir explored vision with a freedom that would have been impossible without them. And it doesn't really explain how Impressionism may have reflected radical new views of science, religion, and philosophy. Nothing in art history happens in a vacuum.

But it's easy to complain about wanting more, more, more of this breathtaking subject. After all, this is part of A&E's "Biography" series, so it was natural for filmmaker Bruce Alfred to concentrate on the personal lives of these great men and woman. Their friendships helped them survive the hard times as they pursued the very nature of elusive light. The painters were determined to see the world as it is - not idealized, romanticized, or disguised behind aesthetic conventions.

The series offers insights into some of the artists. Renoir was a misogynist who preferred to paint women on their knees scrubbing floors (and lots of mindless-looking nudes). One exception was his friend Berthe Morisot, an artist who managed to remain respectable, though painting was not a respectable profession for a woman in those days.

Late in life, Degas became a virulent anti-Semite, cutting off his lifelong friendship with Pissarro because he was Jewish.

We also discover that Monet's devotion to his wife of 39 years was such that, when she died, he stopped painting for a year. When he returned to it, he created some of his greatest works - his water lillies series.

The details of the Impressionists' lives are interesting because they help us understand that as great as these artists were, and as immortal as their art is, they were only human beings who were brave enough to do the work they were inspired to do - no matter what their personal limitations.

Filmmaker Alfred assembles a wonderful group of world-class art historians, rare archival footage, photographs, and the artists' letters, which, along with their paintings, tell their stories. And he reminds us that while the French at first rejected these innovators, America embraced them wholeheartedly. Still, before their deaths, they were recognized throughout the West for their contributions.

Summer on TV is not all reruns anymore. Kristin, NBC's new sitcom beginning June 5 (8:30 p.m.), stars singer-dancer-actor Kristin Chenoweth as an aspiring singer-actor-dancer who moves from Tulsa, Okla., to New York, where she takes a day job as a secretary. The catch is that this little lady is a Christian who doesn't mess around, lie, cheat, steal, or jaywalk. And her boss is a lecher who does all of the above.

The pilot episode is a little too predictable, but the show gets better and funnier with successive episodes. And what's best about it is that while Kristin is ambitious, she never abandons who she really is, maintaining her integrity without standing in judgment of others. Now, that's a new concept for television in which the mainstay of humor often lies in the judgment of others.

Ms. Chenoweth, who won a Tony Award for her performance in "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" on Broadway, is 4 ft., 11 in., and much of the humor revolves around her small frame and high voice.

"What attracted me to the project is that it is a comedy about a single woman who happens to believe in God, but who has problems just like everybody else," Chenoweth said in a recent phone interview. "How does she handle them? Is she cynical and bitter about them, or does she try to do the right thing? And it isn't always going to be the right thing. She's going to make mistakes."

But whatever mistakes she makes, they won't be the same ones made on HBO's sexually promiscuous "Sex in the City." The character's spiritual and moral life are not outside her experience - they inform every aspect of her life.

"She's going to grow - she'll become more New York savvy," the actress says. "But she's not letting go of who she is or what she believes in. She will help her boss grow, too."

Chenoweth says the show borrows from her real-life experiences, and while she gets to have some input on the character's Oklahoma background, she's still just playing a character.

"I was raised as a Southern Baptist," Chenoweth says, explaining that her faith helped her get through hard times in college.

"For me," she says, "what's important is I just want to live what I believe and not judge other people."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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