'Betty White: First Lady of Television': TV Review

Goes down like chiffon cake.
8/21/2018

PBS offers a charming retrospective on the career of television's reigning grande dame.

When I was growing up, one of my pastimes included making lists of every retconned storyline on The Golden Girls. Two episodes aired daily on Lifetime starting when I was in fourth grade, and so it didn't take me long — once I'd seen the series about 14 times over — to become an expert. Years later, as I sat quietly in the Hot in Cleveland green room, another guest asked Betty White's agent if she had done anything musical on TGG. He wasn't sure, so swot that I am piped up, "Yes, the episode where she helps Sophia and Dorothy rehearse their Sonny and Cher number for a talent show." Just imagine my pride.

Not everyone is a freak like I am, but few Americans would have trouble recognizing television's reigning grande dame, Betty White, with her signature crystalline blue eyes and spiced honey persona. PBS special Betty White: First Lady of Television plays love letter to the pioneer comedienne, one of the first women to produce television and one of the first to lead her own sitcom. (Her sassy '50s housewife series Life With Elizabeth ran concurrently with I Love Lucy.) Although expectedly hagiographic, the documentary goes down as light and as welcome as a slice of chiffon cake.

Utilizing a combination of warm celebrity/friend interviews and charming footage from across White's 80- (yes, 80) year career, the special begins in media res, practically making a case for its own existence with a rundown of White's cultural renaissance. (Her raunchy-granny stint on William Shatner's 2006 Comedy Central Roast pushed her back into the spotlight, but she officially became meme-worthy in 2010 starring in an acerbic Super Bowl Snickers commercial.) The best moments of the special, however, showcase golden snippets from White's early career — her soprano trill on '40s variety show Hollywood on Television and her vinegary braggadocio on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The ease with which White performs masks the depth of her talent. Trained as an ad-libber in the Wild West days of broadcasting, she explains, "Stage fright is a life saver," the gift that provides performers their edge during live performances.  And she should know — she's been doing live television (and taping in front of a live student audience) for nearly her entire career. Even at 96, she's as  effervescent as she was during her '70s heyday as the queen of game shows, still offering bubbly ripostes reminiscent of her appearances on Password and Match Game.  

Her timing and delivery are what made her sizzle as libidinous passive-aggressor Sue Ann Nivens on Mary Tyler Moore and shimmer as lovable Minnesotan dingbat Rose Nylund on Golden Girls. Even in her 90s, she always got the hardest laughs as acid-tongued firecracker Elka Ostrovsky on TV Land's throwback sitcom Hot in Cleveland. (And I should know. I've seen every episode of that one, too.)

Expect a sunny retrospective, not an in-depth biography. While we get some information about White's background as a nature-loving only child, we don't get enough analysis of what sparked her foray into acting or how she's been able to foster so many different facades over her career. Instead, the camera spends significant time with former co-stars such as Valerie Bertinelli, Ryan Reynolds and Carl Reiner as they wax enthusiastic about her legacy.

The documentary, without necessarily meaning to, reveals White as a cultural chameleon, shifting her roles to meet the needs of her audiences through time. In the 1950s, she was the squeaky-clean homemaker; in the 1970s, a perky lech; in the '80s, a bubbleheaded retiree; and in the 2000s, a deified doyenne and millennial darling not dissimilar to other aging icons Ruth Bader Ginsburg or George Takei. It's a calculated move: "People think, 'Oh, poor old Betty White, you don’t know what you’re saying,'" she devilishly grins. "Oh, yes, you do." She evolved into something cheekier and more biting as culture allowed women to inhabit riskier roles both on and off screen. White may be America's sugarcoated grandmother, but her illustrious career is a testament to both women's liberation and the sexual revolution.

Producers: Steven Boettcher and Michael J. Trinklein
Airs: Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)