Going Postal

A&E’s Between the Lines is a slow-going treat for epistolary geeks.

Between the Lines host Robert Downey Jr.

By what felicitous gift of gab did the developers of Between the Lines (Fridays, 10 p.m. ET) manage to convince the money people to throw down for a four-part miniseries consisting entirely of celebrities reading aloud from the correspondence of famous people? A&E’s new series, an investigation of letters throughout history, hosted by Robert Downey Jr., originates from a belief in the power of the written word—not exactly a box-office goldmine. I can see the concept working on PBS or C-SPAN, but this is Arts & Entertainment, the channel whose January lineup has already given us the baffling new reality show Airline, as well as tonight’s thoughtful one-hour special Who Killed Laci Peterson? As the national attention span grows ever shorter, the epistolary nerd in me—the one who still sends the occasional paper letter and bids on typewriters on eBay—finds something irresistible about the singularly poky prospect of watching Hillary Clinton don reading glasses and dip into Eleanor Roosevelt’s mailbag. (And on a Friday night, yet!)

Unfortunately, like a wallflower at the dance, Between the Lines ruins its own chance to shine, whether for fear of appearing too brainy or through a misplaced desire to please. The problem is not the letters themselves, which are beautifully chosen and arranged by theme into four distinct hour-long segments. For example, Friday’s premiere episode, “Inside the White House,” focused on letters written to and from U.S. presidents. But these are no stiff epistles dryly chronicling matters of state—they’re vibrant, surprising, often funny documents that reveal the great symbolic weight we Americans accord the office of president. Each letter is read aloud by a celebrity whose relationship to the writer ranges from metaphoric (Martin Sheen, The West Wing’s handsome Democratic president, is John F. Kennedy) to metonymic (Priscilla Presley channels Elvis’ spirit to read his letter to Richard Nixon) to simply obscure (somehow it’s hard to take the Cuban Missile Crisis seriously with the eternally jolly John Goodman standing in for Nikita Khrushchev). Hillary Clinton becomes Eleanor Roosevelt, a good match if ever there was one, while Kelsey Grammer takes on Ronald Reagan, a less than obvious choice until we hear the Great Communicator in Grammer’s suavely mellifluous voice. Former President Jimmy Carter reads from a charming letter of his own, sent in response to a child who wrote to express his concern that eating peanuts might get his sister pregnant.

Some of the most interesting artifacts at stake in Between the Lines exist at the edge of what might be defined as “letters.” There’s a fascinating segment about a message scratched on a coconut shell by the young John F. Kennedy, who found himself stranded on a Pacific island with 10 men after his Navy torpedo boat was sunk by the Japanese in 1943. By using this missive as a bucket for bailing their boat, island natives were able to smuggle it back to Navy headquarters, facilitating the rescue of Kennedy and his men. Kennedy kept the coconut shell on his desk for the rest of his life, and the shots of the husk with its still legible inscription: (“11 Alive … Need Small Boat … Kennedy”) are curiously moving.

In fact, the coconut is an apt metaphor: Between the Lines insists throughout on the material nature of all letters, their status as a unique and durable objects—the handwriting, the envelope, the texture of the paper. Without ever coming out and mourning the demise of the handwritten word, the show nonetheless keeps holding its remnants up for our consideration. It’s as if Jacques Derrida somehow found his way into the show’s pitch meeting, only to have his ideas about the inescapable materiality of language watered down just past the point of recognition.

But like Baz Luhrmann directing a Shakespeare play, the makers of Between the Lines seem to lack the confidence to let their excellent material stand on its own. To forestall our apparently inevitable boredom, they’re constantly cutting to slightly different angles on the same actor reading at a podium—Hey, a three-quarter profile! Jazzy!—and laying in bursts of manipulative music. The show also has some of the dumbest visual graphics I’ve seen on TV since Fox turned the Gulf War into a video game. (In one letter, a son thanks his father for the gift of life, while a photograph of the two appears, emblazoned with the all-caps legend, “GIFT OF LIFE.”) Worst of all, the flow of the letters is routinely interrupted by commentary from the letter readers or an intrusive narrative voice-over from an unidentified, disembodied source. Why not set up a letter, let us hear it read in its entirety, then invite the reader to discuss its content with host Robert Downey Jr.?

This not-quite-there quality of Between the Lines, its thwarted intellectual ambition, is perfectly complemented by the choice of Downey as the show’s host. He’s one of those celebrities whose story is written in his prematurely lined face like, well, a message on a coconut: There’s the warped Hollywood childhood, the too-fast rise to fame, the multiple stints in rehab, the blown opportunities. Downey is an enormously talented and sympathetic performer who has never quite found his place in the Hollywood machinery—or at least was never able to claim it. He is sadly underused here, never interacting with the bigwigs who read the letters, but his presence is still endearing somehow, like a ne’er-do-well brother who turns up at the holidays, doing the best he can.

This Friday’s episode (Jan. 23), “Secrets and Lies,” promises to up the juice factor, featuring confessional missives from Princess Diana and Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who drove her two children into a lake in 1994. It will also tell the extraordinary story of a retired police detective who discovered, while going through his deceased father’s things, the identity of the long-sought-after Black Dahlia murderer. In the upcoming weeks, the episode “Personal and Confidential” (Jan. 30) will focus on private fare such as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s love notes and letters written by U.S. soldiers in various war zones, while “The Power of the Pen” (Feb. 13) highlights epistles of a more psycho-disturbing sort: erotic fan mail addressed to Adolf Hitler and a letter written by Nicole Simpson before she died. Call me a wallflower, but I know where I’ll be next Friday night.