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Television Review

A superficial look at history of TV's golden era

Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 2, 2008

"Nice" is the quintessential wan superlative. When a TV show is nice, it's usually not deep, faceted, or revelatory. It's just nice, which is better than being awful, hateful, or detrimental to society; but still. To me, nice is a word that sits dangerously close to "uninteresting" on the adjective rack. And "Pioneers of Television," a PBS miniseries premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 2, is merely nice, as it pays polite homage to TV's early stars. It's a superficial documentary guided by nostalgia for TV's golden olden days.

It takes only moments, of course, for Lucille Ball to appear in the first hourlong episode, which focuses on the genesis of the sitcom. And the episode proceeds to run through all the other great talents you'd expect in a primer, including Danny Thomas, Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke, and Mary Tyler Moore, as we see the genre's themes expand from marriage ("The Honeymooners") to family ("Make Room for Daddy") to community ("The Andy Griffith Show"). On hand to praise these series are such well-preserved and well-spoken sitcom notables as Barbara Eden, Van Dyke, Griffith, and Moore, who recalls Ball telling her, "You're very good."

Naturally, all of the interviewees are generous and respectful. It's pleasing to watch them, and yet mostly uninformative. "I was funny on the 'Van Dyke Show' because of Carl Reiner," Van Dyke enthuses. Griffith delivers a justified tribute to the sidekick brilliance of Don Knotts, although no one then describes Knotts's influence on the likes of Michael Richards on "Seinfeld" and Rainn Wilson on "The Office." Certainly respect is less abrasive to the soul than the gossipy approach of E!, but the "Pioneers" embrace doesn't give way to analysis, fresh backstage stories, or provocative comparisons between, say, Larry David and Jackie Gleason. The show is just a string of reverent sound bites.

A big part of the problem with "Pioneers of Television" is the glib narration, which is delivered by Harlan Saperstein. Next week's episode zeroes in on late-night TV, with the likes of Jay Leno and Regis Philbin singing the praises of Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and Jack Paar. "Under Carson," the voiceover intones grandly, "late-night television became a fixture of American life, the hearth we gather around at the end of the day to unwind, refresh, laugh." Really, you can't get much more boilerplate-ish than that. It's the kind of bland material that makes it into textbooks and encyclopedias that are determined not to have a distinct point of view. Guess what? Late-night hosts "became a part of the family."

Is David Letterman a pioneer? Some would say yes, as he ushered non sequitur and irony into the late-night atmosphere. But "Pioneers of Television" sticks to the familiar assemblage of greatest hits, as it dutifully continues forward on Wednesdays this month. The third episode tells the story of variety shows, with commentary on Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Arthur Godfrey, Carol Burnett, and Flip Wilson ("The door finally opened for people of color"). The recent "American Masters" profile of Burnett captured as much of the life spirit of the variety genre as this hour does. And "Pioneers" expends very little effort in asking why variety shows have died out, while the answers to that question - a lack of versatile talent? the onslaught of awards shows? demographic fragmentation? - might have been illuminating.

The old-fashioned pioneers in this series are valuable for having planted seeds that have taken root. Some clues about how their work has evolved in others' hands might have added heft. But ultimately, there's nothing acutely wrong with "Pioneers of Television," which wraps up with a look at game shows in episode 4. It's a very nice historical survey, and nothing more.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

Pioneers of Television

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 8-9

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