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The sprawling PBS documentary America in Primetime is divided into four hour-long installments: "Man of the House," "The Independent Woman," "The Crusader" and "The Misfits." However, the documentary is interested in more than simply deconstructing those familiar archetypes. It wants to be a history of the entire medium, but four hours simply isn't nearly enough time to allow detailed analysis of every significant chapter in television's history. The producers seem to have bitten off more than they could chew, and the result is a series that sports many of the same strengths and weaknesses as PBS' Pioneers of Television endeavor: generally compelling programming that nonetheless proves quite unsatisfying and leave too many gaps.
Everybody who's anybody in the world of modern television participates in the documentary, so we get interviews with the likes of Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Ball, David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, Ray Romano, Michael Chiklis, Matthew Weiner, Edie Falco, Marc Cherry, Dick Van Dyke, Larry David—the list goes on and on and on. Their comments are often substantial and thoughtful, not the usual PR fluff you often hear in interviews with TV stars and showrunners. However, just when an analysis of, say, Mad Men is really starting to turn riveting, we're off to explore something else. As a result, the entire series ends up feeling like a promo for a rich, exhilarating twenty-hour series.
The connections made between the TV characters are intriguing, even if the series sometimes struggles to find ways to justify putting certain characters in one of their four categories. "The Crusader" struggles in this area in particular, as it wanders from Vic Mackey to Dr. House to Omar Little without ever really acknowledging the fact that the episode features more colorful antiheroes than genuine "crusaders" ("Where on earth do we put Dexter?" the producers must have asked). "The Independent Woman" starts off quite well with its appreciation of programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Murphy Brown, but it gets more problematic when it lumps I Love Lucy and Nurse Jackie into its list of programs that promote feminism. Again, we end up focusing more on memorable female characters than genuinely independent ones.
My other large complaint is that the series might as well have been called America in Primetime (On Pay Cable), as network programming is frequently short-changed in favor of focusing on the critically-acclaimed offerings of HBO and Showtime. Granted, many of these shows are regarded as the cream of the crop from a critical perspective, but many of the most popular and influential network programs are forgotten completely. There's very little from the '70s or '80s offered up, and at times it feels as if television begins and ends with programs that you can only see if you have a particularly expensive satellite bill. To be sure, I love those aforementioned pay cable programs and am happy to see them highlighted, but there are too many steps between Ward Cleaver and Tony Soprano which are ignored completely.
America in Primetime has received a satisfactory transfer, featuring considerable clarity during the many talking-heads segments. The archival footage of the various programs featured varies in quality, as you might imagine. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is perfectly adequate, though I do wish the series had been able to get more TV themes from the programs it highlights (many clips are underscored with same slightly dour original score selections). There are no supplements included.
America in Primetime has too many strong elements at its disposal to fail completely, but it's a frustratingly surface-level pleasure that never materializes into the great television documentary it occasionally threatens to be. My advice is catch the reruns on PBS.
Time to change the channel.
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