Pioneers of Television
Empty8-9 p.m. Wednesdays, Jan. 2, 9, 16 and 23
WNET (New York)
The rule of sequels -- one good turn deserves another -- is evident with "Pioneers of Television," a four-part series conceived after the success of "Pioneers of Primetime," a PBS special in 2005.
This time, producer Michael J. Trinklein and director Steven J. Boettcher tackle a different genre in each show: sitcoms, late-night, variety and game shows. Each episode pushes the nostalgia meter needle and does a reasonably good job of showing the progression of the genre, though you need not look hard for omissions and at least one internal inconsistency.
In the premiere, "Sitcoms," the format is explored and explained largely by focusing on several giants: Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball (and Desi Arnaz), Danny Thomas (and spinoff star Andy Griffith) and Dick Van Dyke. Good choices, all. They account for a variety of important developments, including the presence of a studio audience and the trend toward family and rural comedies.
Still, several key points go unmentioned or barely noticed. The TV sitcom, like the other genres, is a direct descendant of its radio counterpart. The importance of radio is properly acknowledged only in the final episode, on game shows. In addition, the puritanical dictates of sponsors and timid network executives go largely unnoticed here, though this comes up in the episode on variety shows.
Also unsaid is the impact on TV as reception spread from its urban, ethnic birthplaces to less diverse rural territory, effectively cleansing the medium of all ethnic characters, save Arnaz's Ricky Ricardo. Race and ethnicity are big parts of TV's past, as exemplified in the bittersweet story of "Amos 'n Andy," which is not included here.
Gleason, according to narrator Harlan Saperstein in the first episode, stopped after 39 episodes of "The Honeymooners" because he felt he had no more stories to tell. In the third episode, however, Saperstein says Gleason's show owed its demise to competition from Perry Como's program.
Which was it? The answer might have been discerned from the many interviews that Gleason and others gave over the years, all intended to enlighten future generations and, presumably, future producers of documentaries on TV history.
Incredibly, though, Trinklein and Boettcher eschew all archived interviews in favor of comments from stars who were alive at the time of production (including Merv Griffin and Milton Berle). So instead of having Gleason describe the inner workings of comedy, we get Tony Orlando.
Granted, an hour is not much time for a comprehensive over¬view, and there's always room for debate about the forces that drove TV. Still, the lack of comment from so many key figures who were present at the time diminishes the overall impact of the series.
PIONEERS OF TELEVISION
KCET Los Angeles
Producer: Michael J. Trinklein
Director: Steven J. Boettcher
Writers: Michael J. Trinklein, Jack Jones
Editor: Stephanie Theisen
Narrator: Harlan Saperstein