PBS (Mon., Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET)
Television deserves celebration.
Sure, there’s shlock on the tube—but so is there in movies, music, drama and books. Yet poor TV is forever seen as the slum of American culture. And I’m tired of it. Somebody should put a stop to indiscriminate video bashing. Somebody should admit that we like TV. Somebody should have the courage to praise TV and encourage the best from it. Somebody…besides PBS. In this series about TV, all PBS gives us is a wimpy, boorish, snobby, sloppy, clichéd quickie of a bus tour around America’s best friend. Television deserves better than Television.
This mini was born as a 13-part series on British TV. Then some U.S. producers filmed new interviews, dug out old clips and turned it into an eight-part American series. The first episode is an endless introduction, in which narrator Edwin Newman calls TV a kaleidoscope, a colossus and other hackneyed descriptions. Next comes a show on comedy with dutiful tributes to Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar and All in the Family (which is beginning to look surprisingly dated and stale in reruns). The comedy episode also attacks Mr. Ed, The Munsters and My Favorite Martian—proof that Television’s producers have no sense of camp (and little sense of humor). Next there’s a show about the invention of TV. Then come two episodes about TV news with lots of simplistic, pseudosophisticated writing: “Television shapes the way we perceive events,” says Newman, “and in so doing it often interacts with and affects those events.” Too damned much of the mini sounds just like that—like an inept freshman term paper filled with bull and blather. Next comes a show about television drama with the predictable hosannas to the so-called Golden Age of live TV. After that, a show about “fun and games” practically mourns the death of variety shows. And finally the last episode reveals Television’s true stripes. This final show is supposed to be about the “promise of television,” but it really is a survey of the worst of PBS programming through the ages. Here Television’s producers round out their vision of what television should be—not just old-fashioned vaudevillians like Milton Berle, fuddy-duddy variety shows like Kate Smith’s (or Dolly Parton’s), self-important sermon-corns like All in the Family and profound news shows like Edward R. Murrow’s but also mostly documentaries. They want the air to be filled with talking heads who sit and pontificate on such questions as, “Why is a myth different from a dream?” They want television to be boring.
The series has loads of problems: It is poorly organized. It makes a dreadful selection of clips, leaving out golden moments galore. It has nothing new to say, just the same old twaddle we’ve heard too often before. (“Television,” Newman reveals, “is a permanent part of our lives.”) But Television’s worst sin is that it seems to have been made by people who are ashamed of TV. They love what TV was or what they wish TV could be. But they don’t love TV for what it is: fun. If you want to hear important things about TV and how we live, go see Broadcast News. Or watch lots of TV and come up with your own profound pronouncements. Watch anything on television except Television.