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'America in Primetime': Finally, a TV Show about TV Gets It Right!
October 27, 2011  | By David Bianculli


America in Primetime, the four-part PBS documentary series about various TV archetypes, begins Sunday night at 8 ET (check local listings), and absolutely is a show to watch, record and savor. How good is it? This good: It's the best television series about television in more than 20 years...

The last time television looked at itself with this much intelligence and artistry was in 1988, when Michael Winship wrote and produced a documentary series called, quite precisely, Television. That program was made for PBS, too, and it's no coincidence.

Public television, it turns out, is the best -- and may well be the only -- place where smart, independent programs about television can germinate, flower and thrive in a healthy, nurturing environment.


In a TV universe with 200-plus channels, you'd think there would be room for a program, if not an entire channel, devoted solely to presenting and talking about TV's very best. At least I'd think that.

But no. There aren't many networks that are willing to encourage viewers to switch channels to watch something good that's televised by a competitor -- and fewer still willing to pony up for the high rights fees demanded to present clips from TV's best.

The beauty of public television is that the rights to such clips, in a PBS program devoted to a serious discussion of television, are provided at a drastically reduced rate, to encourage the scholarly examination of TV. This is such a healthy exception, and one that everyone involved with TV's creative community should embrace -- but the only way to make it seem worth the trade is to produce programs that reward, rather than punish, such faith.

America in Primetime rewards it.

Directed by Lloyd Kramer, and executive produced by Kramer, Tom Yellin, Dalton Delan and David S. Thompson, America in Primetime does some brilliant things with its four hours. Among them:

-- It divides the shows into shrewdly focused topics ("Independent Woman," "Man of the House," "The Misfit" and "The Crusader").

-- It doesn't subdivide into comedy and drama, which allows for Sopranos creator David Chase to talk comedy, Bernie Mac Show creator Larry Wilmore to talk drama, and everything in between.

-- It allows its interview subjects to disagree, and make complex, often contradictory points.

-- Its roster of clips and interview subjects demonstrates exquisite, wide-ranging taste.


How can you not love a documentary series that, in its hour on "The Crusader," enumerates the similarities of vengeful serial-killer Dexter to vengeful comic-book hero Batman? Or chats with Gillian Anderson, looking lovelier than ever, to reveal the slow evolution of the equality between her Scully and David Duchovny's Mulder on The X-Files?

The documentary's thought-provoking tour through TV mavericks includes Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce on CBS's M*A*S*H, Dennis Franz's Sipowicz on ABC's NYPD Blue, Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey on FX's The Shield, and Hugh Laurie's Gregory House on House -- and interviews all those actors, and more.

And Sunday's opener, on "Independent Women," takes us from The Dick Van Dyke Show and Roseanne to Sex and the City and The Good Wife.

Here's a behind-the-scenes clip of Felicity Huffman, star of ABC's Desperate Housewives, talking about the impact and importance of the America in Primetime approach, as she sees it:

I've written about America in Primetime before, from the 2011 Television Critics Association press tour (you can read that article HERE). And on Friday's Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR, I'll not only guest host, but will provide a full review of America in Primetime, and play a pair of clips from different episodes. After about 5 p.m. ET Friday, you can read or here that review by clicking HERE.

But just to distill the message down to its basics, America in Primetime -- a co-production by Washington, D.C.'s WETA-TV and the Documentary Group, in association with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation -- is too good to miss, and too thoughtful to take for granted. I even like the underwriting spots by Dove, which are made especially by the show's producers to echo the documentary's approach and tone.

In my next column, I'll present an interview I conducted earlier this week for TV WORTH WATCHING with America in Primetime executive producer Tom Yellin. It's not a matter of overkill, just genuine enthusiasm.

If ever a TV show were tailor-made for the writers and readers of a website called TV WORTH WATCHING, America in Primetime is it.




Eileen said:

Since your first mention of this documentary, I've been onboard. It's truly the type of project that only PBS would have the vision to produce.

I'll be listening to your interview on NPR on Friday, as I'm really excited about America in Primetime. I'm one of your readers & commenters who actually remembers tv from its inception; we had a tv similar to your dad's Raytheon. And though the televisions were so much smaller and different, some of the earliest shows still remain the gold standard of entertainment these many years later. The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Ernie Kovacs, Uncle Miltie and on and on.

With all the reality tv clogging up the airwaves, this is really a breath of fresh air in a tv world that so often stinks. I'd love to see you do a post-viewing wrap via this column for we commenters to voice opinions on our favorite segment, interview, nostalgic moment. I know your dance card is pretty full, but...

[Great idea, Eileen. Herewith, an assignment for any TVWW readers who want to play along: Watch Sunday's Part 1 of America in Primetime, and return with your reactions -- either here, or in a special Monday column posting. If I remember to do one... - DB]

Comment posted on October 27, 2011 3:21 PM

Sarah said:

Wow! Okay then it sounds like I have no choice but to watch. PBS really does bring us some very cool docs. Also this sounds like the perfect series for the historian, TV viewer and TV historian in me. I am looking forward to it.

[Please let me know what you think! It hit all those buttons in me as well. -- DB]

Comment posted on October 27, 2011 5:42 PM

Robert said:

Just caught the last half of the "Independent Women," episode with my wife as we were channel surfing on Sunday night.

If you have the means I highly recommend it.

Comment posted on October 30, 2011 10:57 PM
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