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Published: August 1, 2011 at 04:55 PM GMT
Last Updated: August 2, 2011 at 04:55 PM GMT
This is the time at the twice-yearly Television Critics Association tours when I begin to wonder if the media will ever catch up with the consumers they serve. That is to say, there comes a moment at every TCA gathering when the cable and PBS portions come to an end and the broadcast portion begins, or vice versa, and at that moment the tours dramatically change. Dozens of additional critics and reporters, especially those from major media outlets, ignore the cable and PBS days of each tour but descend in droves for the broadcast sessions. (Conversely, if broadcast opens the tour, these same people flee once it ends and the PBS and cable days begin.) This despite the fact that many of the new cable and PBS shows previewed here are superior to many broadcast programs and will prove more popular in the long run.
Interest in PBS programming is what it is, depending on each individual outlet that covers television. Many print and online publications choose to ignore it, even though it features a wealth of entertaining and educational fare that millions of people appreciate. I would argue that Elmo of Sesame Street has enjoyed a larger fan base over the years than many humans working in television today; for that reason alone, the broadcast elitists in the press would have been well-advised to attend yesterday's PBS panel for the upcoming documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, about Kevin Clash, the man who has brought Elmo to life over three decades.
PBS over the weekend also offered excellent sessions for an American Masters documentary about the band Pearl Jam titled Pearl Jam Twenty, featuring director and producer (and Academy Award-winner) Cameron Crowe; the mind-bending NOVA mini-series The Fabric of the Cosmos, with physicist, author and memorable Big Bang Theory guest star Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe); the second season of PBS' tantalizing breakout hit Downton Abbey, and Prohibition, the latest miniseries from America's best known documentary filmmakers, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. (Interestingly, there was such fervent anticipation among the critics last week about actors from Downton Abbey appearing here on Sunday that a casual observer might have mistakenly assumed PBS was bringing in the cast of Glee or readying a reunion of the Lost cast.)
Other PBS panelists included Smokey Robinson and Human Nature (for Smokey Robinson Presents: Human Nature The Ultimate Celebration), House star Hugh Laurie (for the Great Performances production Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk – A Celebration of New Orleans Blues), and Mira Sorvino and Mariel Hemingway for the American Masters production Seriously Funny – The Comic Art of Woody Allen. Taken together, this is a lineup of programs that will likely prove far more interesting to many more people than most of the new sitcoms and dramas that the broadcast networks are going to present this week.
The same is true of the dozens of upcoming cable series and specials that were previewed here last week. The cable standouts included the timely Hallmark Channel movie William & Catherine: A Royal Romance; the History documentary miniseries Vietnam in HD; the Lifetime movie Five, a collection of five inter-connected short films that deal with breast cancer directed by Jennifer Aniston, Alicia Keys, Demi Moore, Patty Jenkins and Penelope Spheeris (the latter the only one of the five who appeared at TCA to promote her work); National Geographic Channel's Rocket City Rednecks and Mad Scientists, both featuring colorful amateur inventors; the Discovery Channel event series Curiosity, which explores a number of questions about the existence of man, the Earth and the universe; Saved, an Animal Planet series about animals that have given troubled people a new lease on life; The Hub's Majors & Minors, a music competition series featuring young performers who are carefully mentored and never voted off the show; Starz' Boss, about a ruthless Chicago mayor played by Kelsey Grammer; Starz' eagerly anticipated Spartacus: Vengeance, the latest chapter in the network's ultra-violent, sexually supercharged sword and sandal drama; and the return of MTV's animated Beavis and Butt-head, which had many critics more excited than much of the new broadcast or cable programs coming in the months ahead.
Perhaps the most memorable session of the tour so far featured an appearance by the legendary Jerry Lewis, on hand to talk about his career as it is recalled in the upcoming Encore documentary The Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis. Sharp, spry and uninhibited at 85, Lewis let fly on a number of subjects, including the state of the entertainment industry in general and television in particular.
"We don't have the soul in our industry that we had when I was working," Lewis exclaimed. "The soul has been desperately deteriorated, only because you got a guy that's running a network whose aunt died and left him some stock. He's now an executive in charge of entertainment. Do I sound pessimistic?
"I love my industry," Lewis went on, building steam. "I love what it does. I don't allow people in my family to use the term 'TV.' That's stupid. It's 'television.' It's a miracle. It's entitled to that respect, and that's the way I am about it.
"When I watch it, I want it to grab me," he said. "I want it to be like … [when] we ran home to see [Milton] Berle on a Tuesday night. Nobody wants to run home now and see anything. They run home and hope there's something. And we got to fix that!"
More attention in the print and online press directed to some of the shows mentioned in this column might help bring about the fix Lewis was calling for.
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