Summertime silliness overload? Switch to PBS

Occasionally, it seems, TV veers away from its summer silliness.
You just have to know where to look … which is mostly PBS.
The network has just announced three “Frontline” films, plus six on “POV.” Those documentaries span the globe – Palestine, Peru and Puerto Rico, plus India, Afghanistan and the U.S, – and cover serious issues, from toppling statues (shown here) to propping up the economy. Read more…

Pandemic sent PBS in fresh directions

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.” Read more…

Here’s a portrait of dreams, large and small

We hear a lot about “the American dream” – especially when a pandemic might sideswipe it.

But what is that dream? PBS “American Portrait” reminds us how varied it can be.
It can be something huge. A young Alaskan dad links with a friend to start their own airline; a student struggles to get into medical school – a chance that was denied to her mother in Afghanistan.
Or it can be more basic: A young construction worker (shown here) and his girlfriend, dreamig of some day having a house and a family. Those three stories are at the core of the “Portrait” opener, at 9 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 5). Read more…

“Fiddler”: A theater giant, molded from tradition

Some of Broadway’s best minds were trying to say what their prospective musical was about.
It had this dairyman … and his daughters … and the czar’s soldiers … and …
But what, director Jerome Robbins asked, was it really about? Finally, someone said it was about tradition. “Write that!” Robbins said.
That story is told in “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” a richly crafted documentary at 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13), on PBS. The film tells of a musical some people felt would fail.
It didn’t. “Fiddler on the Roof” (shown here) won nine Tony awards and ran for 3,242 performances – at the time, the longest-running show in Broadway history. It’s had five New York revivals, six tours and a movie. Read more…

A national diary soars in the time of COVID

As the year began, PBS launched a sort of national diary.
People could simply send in their stories, via video (usually) … or photos … or prose … or whatever.
Eventually, some would be tied into a special – one of which (shown here) airs at 10:30 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 2) on many stations. It would be kind of pleasant and PBS-y.
Then COVID came and everything changed. Read more…

Even in a pandemic, PBS is busy

The world may be in a slow-down, shut-down mode, but you can’t prove it by PBS.
The network – now in a three-day stretch of press conferences with the Television Critics Association – somehow seems busier than ever.
There is Ken Burns (shown here), juggling films. “I am, like an idiot, working on eight projects,” he said.
And Henry Louis Gates, doing a four-hour, February film about Black churches … and glad that the church portions were filmed early. “This is not exactly the safest place to be at the time of a pandemic.” Read more…

The Eaton era: masterful “Masterpiece”

The Rebecca Eaton era is ending at “Masterpiece.” It has been … well, mostly masterful.
At its peak, it has provided some of the finest moments on television – “Downton Abbey” (shown here), “Prime Suspect,” “Wallander,” “Sherlock” and more, including “Little Women” and “Bleak House” reboots.
At its low point, it’s merely been bland, such as the recent “The Chaperone.” Then it has bounced back.
PBS announced recently that Eaton, 72, is being “promoted” to “executive-producer-at-large.” She’ll work at developing new drama projects, while also fundraising for The Masterpiece Trust, which has raised $20 million since she launched it eight years ago. Read more…

Moon landing: Was it 50 years ago or 500?

As moon-landing films fill our TV screens, something becomes clear:
The world has changed profoundly in the past 50 years. These documentaries show a 1969 when:
— Americans obsessed on the Soviet threat. It “really was kind of war by another means,” said Robert Stone, whose three-night film starts Monday (July 8) on PBS.
— The space program was all-white. It went 23 years before having a black man in space.
— And it was virtually all-male (as shown in this celebration photo). You can ask Poppy Northcutt, who was then the lone woman at Mission Control. Read more…

Hilty: Second-hand fame, first-class talent

Megan Hilty has built an impressive life from second-hand parts.
“Most of my career (is) basically stuff that other people have already made ridiculously famous,” said Hilty, who has a special Friday (May 24) on PBS.
That started as Kristen Chenoweth’s stand-by in “Wicked,” on Broadway. “It was terrifying …. My Broadway debut, I had two-hours’ notice. It was opposite Idina Menzel, shortly after she won her Tony. And I’d never done the show with people before.” Read more…