Biography of the Millennium (A&E, 1999)

One of the few programs on television that has retained its integrity over its entire run, Biography is a good idea executed well. For this series of videos to commemorate the end of the second millenium, voters from a chosen panel - ranging from Kofi Annan (Secretary General of the United Nations) to David Remnick (editor-in-chief of the New Yorker), as well as visitors to the Biography website, chose the top 100 most important and influential people of the last thousand years.

We humans have a strange propensity for making lists. From the Ten Commandments to the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century to the weekly Top 40 Countdown, we love to define our world in terms of "favorites," most often limiting ourselves to nice round numbers. (You never see a top 83 list.) My generation's particular obsession with this practice was satirically--and affectionately--depicted in the book High Fidelity and its accompanying film adaption.

Host Harry Smith (who can never replace the great Peter Graves, in my opinion) leads us through the list. The series is contained in a boxed set of four volumes. Volumes I and II cover numbers 100 (Suleyman, ruler of the Ottoman Empire) through 26 (Mozart) in brief, encapsulated format. One merely has enough time to become curious about one person before the next one pops up. This, perhaps, is a necessary tactic in order not to overwhelm the modern short attention span, but I found it rather annoying.

However, volumes III and IV slow things down a bit. III covers numbers 25 through 11, and the top ten have volume IV all to themselves. Lists like this are, of course, controversial. For example, Shakespeare (5) is undoubtedly in the top ten, but you cannot tell me that Voltaire (37) was more important and influential than Dante (39) or even James Joyce (86). And you can't tell me that Margaret Sanger's (50) work was somehow more important than Elizabeth Cady Stanton's (56) or Susan B. Anthony's (89). And what the hell is Princess Diana (73) doing on this list? And she's above the Beatles (76)!

How do you order folks from different careers? How can you possibly compare the influence of Michaelangelo (19) to that of Harriet Tubman (71)? Do you lend greater influence to those who influenced future influential people? And what about those who are left out? I suppose that is what Smith meant when he said these lists are often catalysts for conversation.

But, to continue, how does one go about choosing the number one most influential person? Once I considered it, though, I had no problem at all with Number One in this series (I won't reveal the name here). In fact, he is a personal favorite of mine, as well as--I hazard to say--many others here at GMR. That's a hint, of course. But who is to say that he was the most influential? Was he more influential than Isaac Newton (2), or Albert Einstein (8) - the one I had pegged as the probable #1, or can you even put him in the same ballpark?

To conclude, rather than to rant, I really enjoyed this trip through the last thousand years. I was introduced to names of which I previously knew nothing and to new information on familiar personages. Whether you agree with the choices or not, my guess is that you will at least come away a little more educated and maybe with a little more appreciation for the work of those presented in Biography.

 

 

[Craig Clarke]