For PBS, the pandemic created a global dilemma.
This is a network that sprawls across continents and genres. COVID has had endless effects, from delayed dramas to masked puppeteers, solo concerts by Renee Fleming (shown here) and others, and an “Antiques Roadshow” without the roadshow.
Still, PBS has an ambitious schedule, partly because documentaries have been less affected. Coming up are two masterful ones – Henry Louis Gates’ “The Black Church” (Feb. 16-17) and Ken Burns’ “Hemingway” (April 5-7), plus some ongoing series.
“I think the most important series that we have on our air is ‘Frontline,’” Paula Kerger, the network president, told the Television Critics Association. “When you look at what’s happening to investigative journalism in this country, ‘Frontline’ (10 p.m. Tuesdays) is one of the last standing.”
Beyond that, it’s been a scramble For instance:
Most PBS dramas are from England, which was hit early and hard. “I think it was five productions that were delayed because of COVID,” said Susanne Simpson, the “Masterpiece” producer. “And in those early days in March, I don’t think anybody knew how long the lockdowns were going to be.”
Those shows – including “Call the Midwife” and “Grantchester” – will show up eventually, Kerger said. First came an “opportunity to look a little wider.”
Simpson emerged with one series (“Us”) she’d been considering and another (“Guilt”) that came as a surprise. And she landed “Atlantic Crossing” (April 4 to May 23). the true tale of the Norwegian princess who barely escaped, then spent much of World War II in the U.S. It will be PBS’ first Norwegian production and one of the first that sometimes requires English subtitles.
This popular show (8 p.m. Mondays) goes to crowded halls, to meet strangers. That wouldn’t work, Kerger said, “so the team has been extraordinarily creative.”
So far, that’s involved re-visiting and updating old shows. But in May, there will be three weeks of visiting celebrities. “We left the agenda up to them,” producer Marsha Bemko said. That ranged from visiting the horse farm Carson Kressley grew up on to searching the contents of a house that Jay Leno had bought when he had no idea what was inside.
Animation has thrived this year, but “Donkey Hodie” (May 3) went a different way. It’s done with puppets – just as the original character was, on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
That was a mixed blessing, said puppeteer David Redman. “(For) puppeteering in a pandemic, the good thing is nobody sees us, so we can wear masks all the time.” The bad thing is that the characters also sing, requiring an extremely heavy mask. “I almost lost consciousness.”
ARTFUL SEASONS REPLACED
Four classic institutions improvised, when their seasons vanished. They are:
– The Hollywood Bowl. Using footage from past seasons, it created a six-part series, hosted by Gustavo Dudamel. That concludes at 9 p.m. Friday (Feb. 12), with a “Music Without Borders” hour.
– The National Theatre, in London, which had scheduled “Romeo and Juliet.” The solution, said “Great Performances” producer David Horn, was to use the same actors (Josh O’Conner and Jessie Buckley) in a fresh version (April 23), a “cinematic journey, cleverly using on- and offstage spaces.”
– The Metropolitan Opera. Instead of operas, Horn said, it will have “12 new recitals by opera stars in historic settings.” That starts March 19, with Renee Fleming at a Washington, D.C.. estate.
– The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In May, Kerger said, the “Inside the Met” series “views its 150th birthday year, amid an unprecedented shutdown and a reopening to a newly imagined future.”