Monday, November 7, 2011

Prime Time America Comes to Prime Time PBS: America in Primetime

PBS recently began running a four part series called America in Primetime. America in Primetime explores the changes that have occurred in American television since the 1950s and 1960s.

The first two episodes of America in Primetime, "Independent Women (30 October 2011) and "Man about the House" 6 November 2011), are an exploration of how women and men have been represented on American television and how female and male representations have changed since the 1950s and 1960s. The documentary series will conclude with "The Misfit" and "The Crusader", explorations of American TV's loosers, oddballs, and the plain weird and American TV's increasingly complexity in terms of characterisation respectively next Sunday and the following Sunday at 8 pm.

I have watched the first two episodes of the series and I have to say that America in Primetime is, in my opinion, much better than the uncritical and largely cheer leading Pioneers of Television that ran on PBS in 2008 and 2010, a series which explored various genres associated with US TV including crime dramas, situation comedies, and late night television.

My comment about the superiority of America in Primetime to the Pioneers of Television, however,is a bit of a back handed comment. I enjoyed hearing talking heads like Edie Falco, Mary-Louise Parker, Sandra Oh, Roseanne Barr, Felicity Huffman, Dick van Dyke, Ray Romano, Brian Cranston, Shonda Rhimes, Carl Reiner, Marc Cherry, David Chase, Matthew Weiner, Ron Howard (who talked about the obvious: that TV is, at its best, more like a novel), and other stars and creators of American television who talked about their shows and others that preceded and influenced them. However, and this is a big however, I can't fully take seriously a show which focuses on the transformation of women and men on American television since the 1960s that ignores Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No American television show, in my opinion, particularly in recent memory, transformed the image of both women and men on American television screens more than Buffy the Vampire Slayer with its women who sometimes exhibited traditionally masculine traits and its men who often revealed traditionally feminine traits. Do I spy that typical elite Hollywood disdain for certain genre shows in America in Primetime here? Additionally, the show ignores the representation of gender on American not in prime time soap operas like All my Children which have long played leading roles in undermining traditional depictions of women and men on American television. Do I spy yet another elite Hollywood disdain for certain genres here? Anyway, for these reasons alone America in Primetime deserves a thumb somewhat down from me at least thus far.

Additionally I have to give America in Primetime a thumb somewhat down because the show, up to this point, has ignored the fact that in many ways HBO and its fellow cable television travelers, are all, to some extent, versions of the BBC with their short and sometimes higher quality seasons and their sometimes more artistic approach to television. And I object to the caricaturing and stereotyping of two early American television shows, Father Knows Best (CBS, 1954-1960) and Leave it to Beaver (CBS, 1957-1958 and ABC, 1958-1963), in order to create straw men the art heroes of Prime Time in America could play off of and knock down. While both shows indeed presented, to some extent, 1950s images, real or imagined, of American men, women, and children, they also presented a mother who often knew more of what was best than father and a Tom Sayweresque kid in the form of "the Beaver".

Despite my thumb being slightly down on Prime Time America thus far I do look forward to watching the final two episodes of the series. After all, America in Primetime is much better than most of the stuff on American over the air television in primetime. And that is wh I suspect so few Americans watch PBS.

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