American Experience: New Orleans



9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12
KCET (Los Angeles)

Ah, New Orleans. The city that refuses to die.

It looked in 2005 as if those breeched levies induced by Hurricane Katrina would do it in once and for all, but as we see in this typically extraordinary edition of PBS' "American Experience," a lot of people underestimated the resilience, pluck and "survival by improvisation" that define the quirkiest and most colorful of cosmopolitan burgs.

Director Stephen Ives and writer Michelle Ferrari craft an insightful two-hour documentary that contrasts the city's legendary French/Creole roots (in snapshots and archival footage) with glances at how Nawlins is putting itself back together rather like a broken eggshell. As is made clear by historians and today's residents that the city's overwhelming impulse when the going gets tough is to pop open the champagne, stir up some gumbo and party the night away. It is what makes New Orleans a special place and, as is made clear here, its historically consistent reaction to adversity.

The telefilm charts the New Orleans' rise from a small French settlement to a refuge for people of color to an explosive flashpoint for racial separation and discrimination in the post-Civil War reconstruction era. It also explores its equally fascinating and rich cultural heritage that gave rise to the distinctly American art form of jazz as well as the art of raucous celebration via Mardi Gras, not to mention a distinct love of all things edible that led to the evolution of its signature cuisine. What emerges throughout this stylishly presented tapestry is a symbolic microcosm of what's unique and disturbing about America: a city that has long served as a refuge for the disenfranchised even as it struggled mightily with its own tolerance issues. The inspiring subtext is that no mere cataclysmic flood looks to have a prayer of sinking this place. It takes your best shot and somehow stays on its feet before heading off to dance and drink itself silly.