Posts tagged ‘PBS’

Three Ken Burns Biographies: Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright

Three fascinating portraits of three fascinating Americans, spread across three fascinating time periods.  I learnt much more than I expected to about Twain and Wright.  Both of those pieces were far more engaging than I anticipated.  The piece on Jefferson, however, left me wanting more, especially regarding Jefferson’s early years … but perhaps that is because I had already done a fair amount of research on Jefferson’s life whilst watching HBO’s abysmal John Adams miniseries back in 2008.

I’m embarassed to admit that these are the first Ken Burns documentaries that I’ve watched in their entirety.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of his better-known ones, but I’ve never made the time to sit down and watch them all the way through.  Until now.  I think I’m well overdue to take an in-depth look at his depiction of the Civil War.  Time for me to track that down.



Pioneers Of Television: Science Fiction

“You might want to see this,” I heard my daughter yell from the other room.  A show called Pioneers Of Television was about to start on our local PBS station, and this episode (supposedly) covered the science fiction genre.  A quick Yahoo search told me that four eps had aired on PBS last year, and this was the beginning of a second set of four eps, looking at the people who made early and memorable strides in television.  Hmmmm, intriguing.

I’m not entirely surprised they started by talking about Star Trek.  Gene Roddenberry was a pioneer, pushing the bounds of what scripted dramas would allow him to do back in the ’60s.  Hell, when I think of the phrase “sci-fi TV pioneer,” I think Roddenberry, Serling, & Captain Video, not necessarily in that order.

And then they started talking about Irwin Allen.  What?!?  Irwin Allen, a television pioneer?  I would argue against that.  Yes, Lost In Space might have premiered before Star Trek premiered, but I’ve never considered Irwin Allen any kind of television pioneer.  His series may be fun to watch, but there’s very little science in his science fiction.

Scattered throughout all of this, we see snippets of an interview with Rod Serling from what looks like his Night Gallery days, and I keep thinking to myself, “What about The Twilight Zone?!?”

Finally, we get to The Twilight Zone.  Ahhhhh, yes.  That qualifies as pioneering in my book.

But by then they had already made too many mistakes and misleading implications.

In setting the scene for the state of theatrical science fiction in the 1950s, they reference such drek as Killers From Space, Zombies Of The Stratosphere, and Beginning Of The End, making the state of ’50s science fiction look completely ludicrous.  Yes, there were a heck of a lot of stoopid ’50s sci-fi films, but they made no mention whatsoever of such classics as Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, Destination Moon, or The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Why oh why did they address Star Trek vs. Lost In Space before they addressed The Twilight ZoneThe Twilight Zone broke some serious ground in using science fiction as a venue for morality plays, which Roddenberry continued with Star Trek.  They seemed like they were far more interested in promoting a Star Trek vs. Lost In Space rivalry and tacked on The Twilight Zone as an afterthought.

Where’s the cultural context?  They made no mention whatsoever of a big reason why science fiction was so popular in the ’50s and ’60s: the space race.  The Soviets spanked us with the first satellite, the first animal in space, the first man in space, the first man in orbit, the first woman in space, and the first spacewalk.  There was no way we were going to let them beat us to the moon.  The race was on, and we were living in a time where aspects of science fiction were becoming real live facts right before our eyes.

They perpetuated the mistake that Star Trek aired the first ever interracial kiss on television.  Nope.  Star Trek aired the first ever interracial kiss in a scripted drama on American television.  Sammy Davis, Jr. smooched Nancy Sinatra in a variety special a year before that Trek ep ever aired, and a British programme called Emergency Ward 10 beat all of ’em to it back in ’64.

They talked about casting William Shatner as Captain Kirk before they talked about casting Leonard Nimoy as Spock, implying that Shatner was cast first.  Shatner may have been billed as the star of the show, but he wasn’t even in the first pilot, which starred Jeffrey Hunter and (gasp) Leonard Nimoy.  Spock was cast before the character of Kirk was even created.

Their discussion of the end of The Twilight Zone makes no mention of the deteriorating mental health of writer Charles Beaumont, who was instrumental in the show’s success.  Part of the reason Serling felt so burned out by the fifth season was because Beaumont could no longer function as a writer.

After discussing Lost In Space, they later mention Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, implying that Lost In Space came first.  Nope.  Voyage premiered a year before Lost In Space did (and two years before Star Trek).  Nor do they mention that the TV version of Voyage was based on Irwin Allen’s 1961 movie of the same name.

And where the hell was June Lockhart?  I think they interviewed all of the surviving Lost In Space cast except her.

In spite of all this, there were several good moments.  I always appreciated Irwin Allen for the original Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, and I have to say I learned more about Irwin Allen in 30 minutes here than I ever did anywhere else.  It was good to see them interviewing Bill Mumy, firstly because we’re working our way through Babylon 5 right now and secondly because he’s able to comment on both Lost In Space and The Twilight Zone.  I had never heard about who Roddenberry originally wanted to play the roles of Kirk (Jack Lord) and Spock (Martin Landau).  I’m still trying to wrap my head around what a Lord/Landau Kirk/Spock relationship would’ve been like.  And the archival footage of the interview with Rod Serling was fantastic.  I really miss Serling.

One thing my daughter pointed out: this should be called Pioneers Of American Television.  In 1938, the BBC aired a production of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. You can’t get much more pioneering than that.  And they produced another version of R.U.R. in 1948.  What about Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials?  What about their 1954 broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four?  What about A For Andromeda?  What about Doctor Who (which, premiering in 1963, predates both Star Trek and Lost In Space)?

But … waitaminute … where’s Captain Video And His Video Rangers?  That was one of the first sci-fi TV series ever produced, on the DuMont Network in 1949!  Where’s Tom Corbett, Space Cadet?  Where’s Space Patrol?  No mention whatsoever of ANY of these classic pioneering series.

Major fucking fail.

Programs Vs. Programmes

Two things inspired this far-too-long post. The first is a comment that a friend of mine made in response to my comments about The Cape. He said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he’s pleased by how little stupidity comes out of his television because he never turns it on. The second is a question that my son asked me, which I’ll get to further below.

A little background first. My kids watch a lot of British television programmes. And it all started with Doctor Who.

I grew up watching a lot of British television. Thank you, PBS. Back in the ’70s, PBS was my main source of edutainment — Sesame Street, The Electric Company, ZOOM, etc. And then two things blew open the doors of my TV-viewing mind.

The Doctor and Jo Grant walked in on the Doctor and Jo Grant …

“This won’t do at all! We can’t have two of us running about.”

… and a dissatisfied Mr. Praline tried to return a parrot to a pet shop:

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. ‘E’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!”

PBS introduced me to Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and I’ve never been quite the same since. Those were my gateway drugs for British drama and comedy. Doctor Who led to Upstairs Downstairs, I Claudius, Danger UXB and other BBC dramas repackaged under the Masterpiece Theatre banner. Monty Python’s Flying Circus led to Ripping Yarns, Fawlty Towers, The Two Ronnies, and Dave Allen At Large.

I ended up watching so much British television as a kid that one of the first things my first dorm roommate in college asked me was, “Are you British?” Nope, born and bred in the Windy City. But then again, he got into college on a wrestling scholarship, so he wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Even in my childhood viewing habits, I started to notice a difference. Episode by episode, I enjoyed the British series a whole lot more than what I was seeing produced by American studios. There appeared to be an ephemerally higher level of quality running through the majority of the British programmes I watched that was lacking from most (but, to be fair, not all) of the American programs I watched. The occasional American episode would hit that level of quality, but they were fewer and further between compared to what I was seeing on PBS.

This was really driven home by failed attempts to adapt British programmes for the mainstream American viewing audience. My father was a big fan of All In The Family. Thus, I got to know and appreciate Bea Arthur as a comedienne through her work on Maude. When I heard she had a new series called Amanda’s, I eagerly tuned in. Imagine my surprise when I realized I was watching an adaptation of a Fawlty Towers episode, with some dialog sections lifted literally word-for-word out of the original script. Only … it was exceedingly poorly done. The characterizations weren’t there. The comic timing wasn’t there. It was godawfully painful to watch. Which is rather appropriate considering CBS tried again with John Larroquette in the ’90s in the aptly-titled Payne. That didn’t last either, for many of the same reasons.

Some more recent failures? The BBC’s amazingly engaging Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets became ABC’s amazingly dismal Defying Gravity. But I think I’ve ranted enough about that one already. And we can also blame ABC for having the gall to try to produce an American version of the BBC’s brilliant Life On Mars. The less said about that, the better. And nobody in our family holds out any hope for SyFy’s new version of the BBC’s Being Human.

All In The Family, however, is an example of a British adaptation that actually worked. All In The Family was a groundbreaking American sitcom that worked so well I never knew it was an American version of Till Death Do Us Part until many many years later. But this level of success in crossing the pond seems to be a rarity.

Another comparison that comes to mind is how our different entertainment sources treat the same subject matter. Let’s take, for example, a disaster story involving a volcanic eruption. In 1997, Hollywood produced Volcano and Dante’s Peak. (Yes, I know, these are movies, not television programs, but bear with me here.) Volcano was just plain stoopid. Dante’s Peak was somewhat more accurate scientifically, but was still full of dippy characters and unrealistic action sequences. Eight years later, the BBC airs Supervolcano, which was well-written, well-acted, scientifically down-to-earth, and (as my boys both admitted) downright scary.

Or nuclear war. ABC hyped The Day After as something nobody should watch alone, so I did. In a darkened dorm room. I thought it alternated between being dead boring and unintentionally hilarious. The single moment that came close to getting under my skin was the few minutes they spent depicting the bombs going off. That, and Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz saying to the other talking heads (Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, William F. Buckley) in the post-miniseries discussion, “The only reason we have for keeping nuclear weapons is to see to it that they are not used.” The very next year, the BBC unleashed Threads on the world. Threads scared the hell out of me. Just thinking about it still gives me a shiver up and down my spine as I type this. And recently, I finally saw The War Game, which the BBC essentially shelved for 20 years. Shivers, again.

In 2005, Doctor Who came back on the air. I had tried to get my kids interested in that programme for years. My daughter never could stomach the low (compared to today) production values of the old classic Doctor Who episodes. As much as my boys liked Daleks, they could take it or leave it. The programme’s 2005 regeneration, however, sucked all of them in. By the time the third episode ended, they were die-hard fans. I still remember how angry my daughter was when Christopher Eccleston left the programme; she absolutely hated David Tennant. As Tennant’s first season progressed, she started to adore him as the Doctor. Then when Tennant left the programme, she was angry again and absolutely hated Matt Smith. Now, after having seen Smith’s first season, she adores him. It’s so refreshing to see her experience what I experienced decades ago with Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, and Peter Davison.

In 2009, in anticipation of David Tennant ending his reign as the Doctor, we had our own BBCish Christmas. Doctor Who: The End Of Time, Nan’s Christmas Carol, The Gruffalo, The Turn Of The Screw, and Doctor Who-based episodes of QI and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. I also sat the kids down to show them Ghostwatch, which is a style of program that I haven’t seen done well since NBC’s Special Bulletin in 1983.

Around this time, my son asked me a question that I couldn’t answer: “Dada, why is British television so much better than American television?”

In addition to the titles I’ve already mentioned, my kids love Red Dwarf and Primeval. My boys love Sapphire & Steel. My daughter loves Coupling. My wife loves Blackadder. I love Blake’s 7. Shoutouts to Occupation, The Stone Tape, Karaoke/Cold Lazarus, Jekyll, Edge Of Darkness (Bob Peck can kick Mel Gibson’s ass any day of the week), Dead Set, and Sherlock.

That’s not to say that I think 100% of British programmes are 100% fantastic. I was less than impressed with the recent BBC adaptations of The Day Of The Triffids and The First Men In The Moon. I never could really see why people thought Benny Hill was funny. As fun as Space: 1999 was, it had more than its fair share of dumb moments, as has my beloved Doctor Who. The new Survivors was an unnecessary remake, but it was engaging enough to be watchable. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy loses a lot in its translation from radio serial to television, but it’s still funny (and significantly better than the big-budget film adaptation). I can’t help thinking the average level of quality of British programmes appears to be significantly higher than the average level of quality of American programs.

So I’m going to open this up … why is British television so much better than American television? Or is that just a fallacy on my part? Does it have to do with the the BBC being funded by license fees and American television being funded by blatant consumerism? Does it have to do with cultural differences relating to how the viewing public expects to be entertained? Are British producers shooting for a higher lowest common denominator than American producers? Or is it some sort of cultural or perceptual filter, where only the better British programmes are making their way across the pond? (That may have been true in the ’70s & ’80s, but given how ubiquitous the internet and torrents are today, I see that as being unlikely.)

How should I answer my son’s question?

Make ‘Em Laugh: The funny business of America

This six-part PBS documentary is awesome. A wonderful in-depth overview of comedy in America. Yes, there are a few omissions, and it primarily restricts itself to visual comedy (films & television), but it is well worth the investment. The greatest thing about this is that they were able to interview George Carlin at length before he died. Available on DVD or (hopefully) on your local PBS station late at night.