Some major historical events get public television’s uniquely accurate, interesting and non-sensational treatment this week: An oil-drilling disaster, the evolution of a national American landmark, an American-born terrorist and the capture and repair of what appeared at the time to be one of the country’s largest space failures. (Please be sure to check your local listings.)
Monday, 4/20 (8 p.m.) By its very name, “Antiques Roadshow” exposes history, and in the process puts a price on some of it. This is the first show from its visit last year to Santa Clara, Calif. An autograph book (pictured) that an Italian hotelier kept has some amazing and varied signatures in it, but there are even larger appraisals this week The value of one has a high-end estimate of more than a quarter-millions dollars. If you’re good at this game (there’s even a play-along companion app now), you may guess which one it is before the appraiser announces it.
Monday, 4/20 (10 p.m.) Five years ago an oil rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, and the damage done was historical. “Independent Lens: The Great Invisible” looks at the Deepwater Horizon disaster with historical perspective that includes footage from aboard the rig before its demise and interviews with survivors (including Stephen Stone, shown) and others whose role in the event are worth noting.
Tuesday, 4/21 (8 p.m.) The National Mall in Washington, D.C., its development, evolution and importance, are the subjects of this National Geographic special. A screening version wasn’t available. Often in the commercial-TV world, this is a hint a bad show that’s trying to escape scrutiny. But, based on the subject matter and the company that produced it, it’s safe to say it will be worth a watch — and that, perhaps, National Geographic knew a lot of people would come to that conclusion and watch, without the persuasion of a good review.
Tuesday, 4/21 (10 p.m.) “Frontline’s” reputation for high quality, like National Geographic’s, gives it some sight-unseen advantages when — as this week — a screening version isn’t available before the air date. American David Coleman Headley (shown) is said to have helped plan several terrorist acts, including one in 2008 in Mumbai. In a joint effort with ProPublica, this reliably excellent news series takes a 90-minute look at his roles in several terror events.
Wednesday, 4/22 (9 p.m.) The Hubble Space Telescope was launched 25 years ago. The huge initial hype of promise melted quickly when it was learned an engineering mistake of a millimeter might turn the billion-dollar scientific project into a black hole into which those dollars would be sucked. “Nova” — as only this series can with complex science subjects — replays the rescue mission that sent astronauts on an unprecedented repair mission that the world was able to watch as it happened. The vision correction that resulted redefined the term “must-see” TV. (Hubble-enabled space photo taken before the advent of selfies; no astronaut in photo.)
From serious biographies, to films and TV miniseries, to a song by ’60s British Invasion band Herman’s Hermits, Henry VIII’s name and general impressions of his infamy are pretty well-known. But the details of his reign as king of England across almost four decades are many and complex. Those who drew from them for use in popular entertainment did so selectively for purposes of storytelling. And most of us who have been curious about his role in history but overwhelmed by the amount of materials about him have chosen not to dive into the subject.
“Inside the Court of Henry VIII” (April 7 at 8 .p.m. on PBS — check local listings) is a fascinating perspective from five British historians, a show that mixes scholarly research with dramatic reenactments and footage of historical sites — and, as a result, is anything but boring. At the end of the hour viewers will have a much clearer idea of this huge historical figure. (The enormity of Henry is more his role in history than the 400 pounds he weighed when he died.) As a companion to “Masterpiece’s” “Wolf Hall,” it sets out a historical record that may or may not merge seamlessly with that multi-episode drama.
The program is hardly a British coverup. One of the experts says the king had “an ego the size of a truck,” and another concludes, “He’s probably the most selfish king we’ve ever had, and we’ve had a few.”
They all agree that his paranoia made him easy to manipulate, first by Thomas Woolsey, the Roman Catholic cardinal who finally fell out of favor when he was unable to get Henry a divorce from his first wife. Then by Anne Boleyn, the woman whose ascendency to queen was thwarted by Woolsey’s failure. Then by Thomas Cromwell, who manipulated Boleyn’s fall from favor and execution. Then by the Duke of Norfolk — originally a man who opposed Henry’s reign but ultimately who, by marrying his niece to the king, gained the king’s ear and enough influence to defeat Cromwell.
Cromwell met the same execution fate as did Boleyn. But they were far from the only victims of Henry’s easy ability to be convinced that a foe should be eliminated. The program points out that as many as 72,000 British subjects died at the order of the king. The experts even draw some interesting American connections. One compares the newly installed, then-promising young king to John Kennedy (“anything he did was golden”); another points out that the United States of America almost surely wouldn’t exist as it is today if the opponents of Henry’s religious reform hadn’t left the country and the execution threat that they faced, had they stayed, for the New World.
By the time he died in 1547, the country was bankrupt and the damage from the years of his reign of terror was far from repaired. After watching this single hour, viewers have a very clear picture of a man whose abuse of royal power and his vulnerability to manipulation turned history in many regrettable directions.
As one of the historians concludes, “Henry would be remembered, but not for the reasons he hoped.”
Speaking from experience, it’s not often that a critic of any sort can cause even a tremor. Forget moving a mountain. Yet, in the case of one of the most gifted musicians in modern history, it was a bad review that turned not just the head, but the entire life of Jascha Heifetz from a young man who was learning to play like a boy to a virtuoso whose skills almost surely will be admired many years.
PBS’ always-excellent “American Masters” series does a fine job of profiling a gifted and very complex man in the upcoming “Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler.”
(The hour-long special will be shown on: WCET April 17 at 9 p.m.; CET Arts April 19 at 9 p.m.; WPTD, Think TV 16, April 19 at 4 p.m.; KET2 April 17 and 18 at 2 a.m., April 19 at 4 a.m. and April 22 at 8 p.m.; KET April 23 at 3 a.m. and April 26 at 2 p.m.)
Heifetz was born in 1901 in a small Lithuanian town, then part of Russia. He died in 1987, a Californian with homes in Malibu and Beverly Hills. His career was golden. In addition to his super stardom as a violinist, his Hollywood existence landed him in a movie, led him to write a Bing Crosby hit and brought him to a first marriage, with a movie star. Because the program is told from Heifetz/s writings and from recollections of those who knew him, the materials’ provenance is near-flawless. So much detail about this huge talent is packed into a relatively small hour, yet one leaves with a clear idea of and new respect for such a singular musical genius.
He played in public for the first time at the age of 5; four years later, he was admitted to a prestigious conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, where only the intervention of Leopold Auer, a Russian musical giant at the time, kept him from being barred because of his Jewish heritage; at 11 he played his first solo concert, and after building a reputation throughout Russia and Europe by the time he reached 17, he left for what was supposed to be a four-month tour of the United States. The overthrow of the Russian monarchy turned that into a much longer stay and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
He was an immediate celebrity, and as more of America discovered him, he had — for him — unprecedented fun as he discovered a life that was far better than the one he had left in Russia.
“After I came to America, my one aim, it seems, was to enjoy myself,” he wrote. “I had to wait until I was a young man before I could act like a child.”
The end to that spree came when W.J. Henderson, a respected New York music critic, wrote in a scathing review of a Heifetz performance that he seemed “content to stand still” and not progress his art.
“Nothing had prepared me for a bad review,” Heifetz wrote.
An associate from later in his life tells how Heifetz considered suicide. Instead of ending his life, he changed it radically, returning to serious practice and rehearsal again. He never turned his eyes from that intense discipline for the remainder of his professional life.
The change spilled over into almost all parts of his life. His second marriage ended as unsuccessfully as the first. His decades-long lawyer said of the children from those marriages, “He didn’t care for any one of the three of them.”
Heifetz taught master classes at the University of Southern California. Some students were unable to take the master’s stern nature and abandoned the course. Those who stayed experienced a “tense” unbalance between his demeanor out of the teaching environment and the strict formality within. His performances were labeled by some as impassive and cold. It’s pointed out that very few people were allowed to call him by his first name; “Mr. H” was the more common appellation. Reversing his earlier love for celebrity, he traveled under the name Jim Hoyl. It was the same pseudonym he used as the composer of the Crosby recording — “When You Make Love To Me (Don’t Make Believe”).
It appears all the adulation made him incredibly complex. When he was still a child, his Russian benefactor, Auer, announced, “He’s not my student. He’s a student of God.”
The continuing overawed reaction of Itzhak Perlman to encounters with Heifetz sums up how this most-serious man was almost religiously respected by those he touched:
“I can’t believe I’m actually talking to God!”
Standout programming begins the week with some very heavy and serious shows that center on cancer and patient care but end the week with two much lighter musical standouts. Once again, public television demonstrates it singularity in presenting programs, serious and entertaining, that the commercial networks wouldn’t even consider. (Please be sure to check your local listings.)
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” (9 p.m. – 11 p.m. all three nights) was conceived as a television project not too long after the book that inspired it, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., was published in 2010. Film producer Laura Ziskin received the production rights from Dr. Mukherjee to produce a documentary. She collaborated with the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., public TV station, Sharon Percy Rockefeller. Both women were undergoing treatment for cancer at the time. Ken Burns is the executive producer. The project is described in PBS press materials as one that “interweaves a sweeping historical narrative with intimate stories about contemporary patients, and an investigation into the latest scientific breakthroughs that may have brought us, at long last, within sight of lasting cures.” A serious subject treated seriously. (Photo: Dr. Sidney Farber, considered the father of modern chemotherapy, pictured at left with colleagues, c. 1950.)
Thursday: “RX: The Quiet Revolution” (9 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.) is another thoughtful look at a health issue: The relationship between providers and patients. It would be difficult to find a participant in the American health-care system who can’t share awful tales of how a problem was handled. So often, the monkey wrench in the process has been insurance and the bureaucracy created by its rules. David Grubin, son of a primary-care physician, decided to make a documentary about some of the people who have decided to swim against that mighty current. In Maine, Alaska, Mississippi and California he shows how those “revolutionaries” have fared in their efforts. Many of us have to hope this small revolution brings about great results. (Photo: Young David Grubin with his father, Dr. Charles Grubin.)
Friday: Matters of health yield to a lighter vein on Friday for two hours of musical entertainment. “Live from Lincoln Center: Billy Porter: Broadway & Soul” (9 p.m.) spotlights the Tony Award winner in an hour of song. Except for a title that contains too many colons (:::), this program’s credentials are flawless.
Triple colons strike again at 10 p.m. when “Great Performances: Annie Lennox: Nostalgia Live in Concert” fills another hour with song. Ms. Lennox performs 12 songs from her Grammy-nominated “Nostalgia” album, which has been a tribute to great American standards.
Partial apology for recommending: The Annie Lennox was wonderful to hear. Not to watch. The director, perhaps, was being paid by the shot: I never have seen such frenetic camera switching, outside a Monkees episode. The constant camera changes was irritating, to say it nicely.
Public television programming finally returns to first-run offerings — until, that is, the seasons end and reruns take over again. But enjoy the good stuff while it’s served fresh and piping hot. The following are programs I consider worth a watch this week. (Please be sure to check your local listings.)
Monday: Two first-run episodes of “Antiques Roadshow’s” visit to Bismarck, N.D., aired before the rude interruption of pledge programming. Now, finally, the third hour airs. Notable appraised items include an original Coca-Cola Santa Claus painting by Hadden Sundblom, who did all the Santa Christmas ads for Coke for 34 years, and a 1776 letter written by George Washington (was the delay in discovering this because George had a private email account at the time?). A second hour is a rerun of a 2011 stop the series made in Billings, Mont. This is just speculation, but the series always had three, sometimes four, underwriters in recent years. This year that number has dropped to a single underwriter. Will the resulting budget cuts cause ARS to travel less in future seasons? Will future appraisals be done by Skype?
Tuesday: “James Baker–The Man Who Made Washington Work” is a 90-minute documentary that PBS describes as “an eye-opening story of power, persuasion and diplomacy at the highest levels.” In addition to interviews with Mr. Baker, others who contribute include three former presidents (Carter, Bush Sr. and Clinton), a VP (Cheney) and two secretaries of state (Kissinger and Rice). This program would have a tough time not being interesting.
Thursday: When you’re having work done on your home, it’s not unexpected that contractors’ schedules don’t match yours. But that’s not usually the case with “This Old House.” Yet, when we last saw a new episode of the project being done in Lexington, Mass., it was before pledge weeks. Finally, the TOH crew returns, and not one has reached a mandatory retirement age over the long break. The “Ask This Old House” installment coupled with this episode in many markets has an odd twist: The What Is It? part of the show, in which the cast “guesses” the use of an odd object, has a guest guesser: Doris Kearns Goodwin. As a well-respected historian who has written about and commented on many U.S. presidencies, “What is it?” may be a question she has asked many, many times.
Friday: Mikhail Baryshnikov hosts this “Great Performances,” “Mark Morris Dance Group: L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” Choreographer Morris was critically praised for his 1988 direction of this dance work to the music of G.F. Handel. There should be no blame placed on pledge weeks for the time lapse between the original and this broadcast.
Where I live, the snow has stopped falling (for now) and the temperatures hint that spring is close. Where I live, the public television membership drives are just about over (for now) and programming on the PBS affiliates soon blooms from the bait-and-switch stuff that filled screens almost endlessly for weeks to the programs that people turn to public television to see most of the rest of the year.
Winter and fund-raising may be necessary, but celebrating their end is a naturally good thing.
But just like divers who come out of deep water have to decompress before resuming normal activities, PBS this weeks brings us back slowly to excellence with a week of reruns. Still, a repeat of a good public show beats a first-run of commercial shlock by a very long distance. So here are few shows scheduled for this week (check local listings) that I’ll put against anything on at the same time.
Monday: Two hours of “Antiques Roadshow” will make my evening spring-like. The first hour is an early 2011 rerun taped in Des Moines. Even though I saw the original, I would watch again to see the appraisal of something called a “beehive clock,” if only to see how it got its name. There also is an appraisal of a diamond ring for $60,000-80,000. Big rocks and beehives — and this isn’t “Nature.”
The second “ARS, ” shown first in April 2011, was taped in Billings, Mont. A 19th century Arthur Brown watercolor, thought to have disappeared, reappears for its $75,000-100,000 appraisal. Take that, Penn and Teller.
Wednesday: A “Nature” repeat of an early 2013 episode features reflections of Sir David Attenborough’s 66 years as host of some outstanding, British-born nature programs. Attenborough’s hosting set a bar for nature shows. A treat the first time, it holds up well in second-run.
“Nova’s” 2009 episode, “The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies,” follows the annual 2,000-mile migration of monarch butterflies. The amazing footage (closeups and aerial) complements a remarkable and interesting story.
Friday: I never watched an “American Masters” installment I didn’t love, and though I didn’t see this one, “Judy Garland: By Myself,” when it was first shown in 2004, I’m ready to love it when it shows this week. Told in her own words, supplemented by screen tests and rehearsals drawn from the MGM film library, this will be another great “Masters” delight.
(Please Note: The initial piece on this blog differentiated between commercial TV programming and that on public television, with the latter declared the clear winner. While this blog goes relatively undiscovered, it’s time to take one last shot at a tired horse from the commercial world, the cooking show. Its preachy nature usually is unbearable; its laying down of arbitrary rules is just unenlightened. These are behaviors not found as often on public shows. After this last punch, I promise to leave the oafs of commercial TV alone and concentrate only on the good stuff on the public side.)
The frothy fervor of those who live for food has, in my opinion, taken on the aspects of many a bad religion. The strict rules, the lockstep opinions, the harsh judgments laid upon those who don’t believe — it sounds like the makings of what I always heard tent meetings were like. Can it be long before Mario Batali begins laying on hands and casting out demons in the cause of gastronomic correctness?
Having watched the phenomenon develop on television, I think I have tied down the movement’s Ten Commandments:
Thou shalt use only the finest olive oil (chocolate, brandy, etc.) — whatever is an insignificant purchase to you because of where you live (e.g., East Hampton) or the size of your TV show’s budget (e.g., any of the thousand or so Bobby Flay programs).
Thou shalt use only unsalted butter — smacks of an illegal boycott.
Thou shalt use only fresh lemons — not that stuff in a bottle, which is worse than carcinogenic.
Thou shalt use only unbleached flour — eventually they will bring down their wrath upon the heathen makers of incorrect butters and flours.
Thou shalt throw out all those outdated dried herbs and spices — don’t just use more of the outdated stuff; we have stock in Spice Island and it needs a kick in the fiscal butt.
Thou shalt use only fresh herbs, never that stuff in a bottle or can — who said anything about a ban on hypocrisy?
Thou shalt use only flat-leaf parsley — that curly stuff is full of yucky cooties
Thou shalt use only parmigiano reggiano and never that green-can stuff — Statistics show that most of the people who have died since the inception of Kraft ate parmesan cheese from a green can at least once in their lives.
Thou shalt cook only with a wine you would drink — people who cook with cooking wine never get promotions, live in cardboard boxes and marry their cousins.
Thou shalt buy only those foods that were grown within a 10-mile radius — starve, you desert-dwellers!
I have done a lot of writing about television. But not as much writing as I have done watching. It’s easy to form opinions about things in which you have immersed yourself so fully. And, as I begin this blog, here’s one solidly cemented opinion: Even with all the sources that provide us with TV choices (networks, streaming services, prerecorded media), the big winner is public television.
It is, and has been for some time, so many levels above those shows that fight with all tactics possible to pay their bills that it would seem to be an easy contest. What chance should “The Bachelor,” “My 600 Pound Life,” “Naked and Afraid” and similarly “crafted” shows have against “Nature,” “Nova,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “American Masters” and the many other programs that put the viewer’s mind ahead of his lower torso?
The difference in the contest is twofold: First, when sponsor money is out there for the taking, commercial networks seem to have no problem investing large piles of cash in the hopes of luring advertisers so they can make even more. Well-funded marketing usually sells things, regardless of their level of quality. Public broadcasting, like the serfs hoping to keep food on the table while the landowners party all day, is at a big disadvantage. Also, commercial television keeps proving there’s no bottom to the endlessly tasteless hole it continues to dig to attract advertisers. Sideshow-like, prurient programming that lures people the way undesirables would hope to attract kids around an unprotected playground have a way of scoring big.
Public TV stations and the programmers who supply them don’t act that way. The most obnoxious thing they do is scrap usually good programming several times a year to fill pledge drives with irrelevant shows and shameless begging. That behavior is obnoxious. But it’s less so, compared to what’s going on at the same time on networks that began their lives with ambitious names like The Learning Channel and Arts and Entertainment.
So here’s what the small effort will be here: Point out programs that can get lost in the commercial hype. Point out what is a good bet many people will enjoy, given the chance to find it. Emphasize the good choices. With all the shrillness surrounding zombie, apocalypse, drug-dealing, revenge-seeking, just plain scummy programming, I want to put an audible voice out there that suggests looking at the alternative–and what a joy it can be. And do that for the noble underdog, public television.
If that sounds like an idea worth your attention, please return. There will be plenty worth recommending.