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Aug. 13, 2022

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PBS is turning 50. Celebrate with our TV critic’s list of its 13 greatest shows

3 Photos
Publicity still of the Sesame Street Muppets taken to promote their record album, 'Sesame Country,' July 1, 1981. Included are Oscar the Crouch (in garbage can), Bert (holding washboard), Ernie (harmonica), the Count (bass), Cookie Monster (banjo), Grover (violin), and Big Bird (far right).
Publicity still of the Sesame Street Muppets taken to promote their record album, 'Sesame Country,' July 1, 1981. Included are Oscar the Crouch (in garbage can), Bert (holding washboard), Ernie (harmonica), the Count (bass), Cookie Monster (banjo), Grover (violin), and Big Bird (far right). (Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images/TNS) Photo Gallery

PBS turns 50 this week, though, like a marriage when you count in the engagement and courtship, it is older than that, having its roots in NET National Educational Television, founded in 1954 and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which, said then-President Lyndon Johnson, “rededicated a part of the airwaves, which belong to all the people … for the enlightenment of the people.” TV in those days was a limited resource in some parts of the country very limited and though not entirely without quality, was largely dedicated to making money. The public interest, which broadcasters are legally required to serve, was so broadly interpreted as to be practically meaningless, and remains so.

Across half a century, PBS has known its more and less brilliant years, but it has remained the case that the network aspires to a higher cultural, informational, one might even say spiritual standard, even as it seeks needs to be entertaining. And indeed, its programming has been surprisingly influential, and not just as shoulders upon which modern quality television placed its feet. Before there were travel channels and cooking channels and science channels and animal channels, PBS did that work.

Here’s a look across those 50 years, with apologies to “This Old House,” “Antiques Roadshow,” Sister Wendy Beckett, “The Shock of the New,” “Nova,” “Nature,” “PBS NewsHour” and countless other hours of enlightenment and fun I will give their due when 60 rolls around.

“Sesame Street” / “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”

Perhaps the greatest contribution PBS has made to television and the world is children’s programming “The Electric Company,” “Zoom,” “Arthur,” “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” “The Magic School Bus,” “Reading Rainbow.” But no series in 50 years has been more important to the culture and perhaps to PBS itself than “Sesame Street,” which premiered in 1969, not just as a show or an educational tool but also as an approach to life. Funky, bright, noisy and urban, with stoops and trash cans and a cast of many colors, flesh and felt, it tells us that a place does not have to be sanitized to feel safe and that although life is not always perfect, it can always be celebrated. Fred Rogers performed a similar service, in a quieter way; his show felt pastoral in both senses of the word, not only on his own program but also on the “Mister Rogers” spinoff “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and on and on. None were, or are, out to sell kids anything which is not to say you couldn’t buy a Tickle Me Elmo, if you managed to find one.

“Masterpiece Theater” / “Masterpiece Classic”

Originally hosted from an imaginary manor by British journalist Alistair Cooke (presenter also of “America: A Personal History of the United States,” whose companion volume was ubiquitous in American households in the 1970s), this series was ground zero for the network’s oft-noted Anglophilia. British imports are all over television nowadays, but for years they were the almost exclusive province of PBS. “Masterpiece Theater,” which premiered in 1971, was home to dozens of great, oft-discussed series, from Glenda Jackson in “Elizabeth R,” to Ian Carmichael as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, to a divinely definitive Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves and Wooster,” to Derek Jacobi in the title role of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius,” a sort of “Succession” in togas. Myriad adaptions of Dickens, Eliot, Hardy and Austen gave credence to the “Masterpiece” moniker. It was the venue too for the original “House of Cards,” “Poldark” (Robin Ellis in the 20th century, Aidan Turner in the 21st), “The Durrells of Corfu,” “Wolf Hall” and “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the structural and spiritual ancestor to “Downton Abbey,” of which more in a bit.

“Mystery!” / “Masterpiece Mystery!”

With its Edward Gorey-designed title sequence, “Mystery!” is the impish cousin of “Masterpiece Theater,” a place where murders may pile up and lives go to ruin, but trouble evaporates on the tongue like cotton candy. For many Americans, murder is best committed in quaint villages, country estates or London mews, preferably sometime between the start of the 1920s to the middle of the 1950s although more contemporary detectives may be welcomed if they are slightly out of time. Here we got to know David Suchet’s Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Leo McKern’s John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, Jeremy Brett’s Holmes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison, and three flavors of Miss Marple (Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, Julia McKenzie). Just what the coroner ordered.

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus”

Something completely different arrived in America in 1975 by way of the Dallas PBS affiliate KERA, not long after this convention-shattering series ended its U.K. run. A Ministry of Silly Walks, a cheeseless cheese shop, a tennis-playing blancmange from space, a fish-slapping dance, a dead parrot, trouble at mill, sketches without punchlines held together by surrealist animation. Individual Pythons would continue to appear on PBS, including Michael Palin’s travel series, Terry Jones’ history shows, Eric Idle’s scientific musical comedy “The Entire Universe” and, of course, John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers,” a sitcom so energetic and eventful and influential that one might think it lasted 12 years instead of 12 episodes. But many less radical British comedies followed it in PBS has had little time for the American kind including “Are You Being Served?,” “Keeping Up Appearances” and “Doc Martin,” all useful in a fund drive.

“The Civil War”

Not the first Ken Burns PBS documentary that was “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1981 but the cultural blockbuster that in 1990 set the template for more big things to come and sealed a partnership. With their ambitiously generic titles see also “The War” (as in World War II) and “The Vietnam War” Burns documentaries attempt to take a subject in whole and come back with something that embraces who we were, are and might become. His set style the dynamic approach to archival still photographs, the measured narration knitting little stories into a big one, the charismatic talking heads sharing experience or expertise, the very long running time and elegiac tone suits some subjects (“Baseball”) better than others (“Jazz”). But there are beautiful things in each of his films.

The films of Frederick Wiseman

Burns may be America’s best known documentary filmmaker, but Frederick Wiseman, still working at age 90, is possibly its greatest, a chronicler of his times as seen through wildly different lives, institutions, jobs, places and practices. PBS has long funded and exhibited his work, as challenging as it is carefully dispassionate. His titles are as generic as Burns’ (“High School,” “Welfare,” “Model,” “Belfast, Maine,” “Central Park,” “Public Housing,” “At Berkeley”), his ambitions as great, and his films also long, but Wiseman, who is all show and no tell, looks deeply into the present. His films, which can be casually beautiful, have shape and drama, though no narrative or obvious agenda we come for a while, and then we go, having really been somewhere.

“Downton Abbey”

Presented under the aegis of “Masterpiece,” “Downton Abbey” seems to deserve a spot of its own on this list, as a bona fide phenomenon a series that created excitement and conversation, as well as cookbooks, a branded tea and a special edition of Clue. The story of the Crawley family and the people who served them in the first decades of the 20th century, as the old ways give way to new, it is like “Upstairs, Downstairs,” its spiritual ancestor a posh melodrama, a stylish soap opera, a tale of love and money, sacrifice and skulduggery lifted by splendid settings and intelligent performances, none more memorable than Maggie Smith’s dry, acid quip machine, the dowager countess.

“The French Chef”

Not American television’s first cooking show (that was James Beard’s “I Love to Eat,” in 1946) but certainly its most important. Taped in real time, with mistakes left in, Julia Child’s landmark series ran on public television from 1963 to 1973, to the mutual benefit of host and network. Six-feet-two-inches of wine-drinking Yankee joie de vivre, Child made sophistication accessible. (In 1971, “The French Chef” also became the first U.S. series to be captioned for the deaf.) Other chefs would follow onto the network, including Ming Tsai, Martin Yan, Paul Prudhomme and Jacques Pepin, who joined Child in “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.” (Fun fact: PBS was also the first American outlet to air “The Great British Baking Show,” in 2015.)

“Frontline” / “POV”

PBS’ home for investigative journalism, “Frontline” has aired more than 700 episodes since 1983; now in its 38th season, it keeps up astonishingly well with current events, wading fearlessly into the day’s darkest corners and most toxic swamps. Recent episodes have dug into police reform, conspiracy thinking, the NRA, the Taliban, China’s detention of Muslims, COVID-19 from many angles and the upcoming election; its biographical comparison of the presidential candidates, “The Choice,” has been a tradition since 1988. It has also been the home for the remarkable long-form documentaries of David Sutherland (“The Farmer’s Wife,” “Country Boys”) that take sympathetic, searching looks at lives TV leaves mostly unexamined. The documentary anthology “POV” takes a more personal look at the world, often focusing on, and through the eyes of, the poor or marginalized. There is no agenda: From week to week, it may be shocking, beautiful, hopeful or hilarious.

“American Playhouse” / “The American Short Story” / “American Masters”

Perhaps as a counterweight to its obvious crush on Great Britain, PBS launched several series (and series within series) with the word “American” in the title, focusing on homegrown arts and artists. All but for the great biographical anthology “American Masters” and the history series “American Experience” have gone dark. But they provided many eye-opening hours: I have vivid memories of Twyla Tharp’s company performing “Sue’s Leg”; Joan Micklin Silver’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” with Shelley Duvall and Bud Cort; Jonathan Demme’s film of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Who Am I This Time?,” a fanciful small-town romance with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken getting to know one another through community theater; taped-off-the-stage productions of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods”; Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle; and the groundbreaking miniseries adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” whose first and best series appeared under the flag of “American Playhouse.”

“Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”

“We’re made of star stuff; we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Produced by L.A.’s own KCET, nerd-sexy astronomy professor Carl Sagan’s 1980 13-part cruise through life, the universe and everything macro and micro, terrestrial, extraterrestrial, past, present and future mixed science and philosophy and poetry with a touch of sci-fi. (Sagan sets out into space and time in a “ship of the imagination.”) It was the most watched PBS series until “The Civil War,” and as I write this, Sagan, who died in 1996, happens to be trending on Twitter because his words fit the times “We’ve arranged a society on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces” and people still think he’s cool.

“An American Family”

This 12-hour cinema verite documentary was like nothing anyone had ever seen before, an embedded look into the lives of ordinary people long before “reality” television was a gleam in an executive’s eye. But “An American Family” was something else again, a 10-pound novel of a series in which for long tracts of time nothing much happened; some, among the millions who watched, took that inaction as a sign of a decadence, all the more so because the Louds were financially well off, and especially in light of the marriage of Pat and Bill Loud coming apart in the course of the series. (The reaction shocked the subjects, who thought they were doing all right.) But it always struck me as a love story.

“The Joy of Painting”

This too is public television: From 1983 to 1994, fantastically permed painter Bob Ross hosted a show (out of Muncie, Ind.) in which he taught viewers how to paint like Bob Ross a series that has improbably come back to fascinate modern audiences. Ross’ gentle, hypnotic patter in which he casually ascribes a capacity for happiness to trees and bushes, as he completes an imaginary landscape faster than you can cook dinner has something of the quality of a magic act, or Will Ferrell leading a yoga class. Is it art? It’s painting. “This is your world. You make it happen,” says Ross.

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