Review: ‘The Pioneers of Television’

Louis J. Horvitz

Near the end of this four-part documentary, it's noted that TV "isn't curing cancer," which must have come as news to the producers.

Near the end of this four-part documentary, it’s noted that TV “isn’t curing cancer,” which must have come as news to the producers. Approaching sitcoms, latenight, variety and gameshows as if they were the equivalent of the polio vaccine, this stately project yields fine moments thanks to the interviews and rare clips, but it’s so absurdly reverent as to ill serve its subject matter — this docu was seemingly meant more as a museum piece than a TV program. As such, “Pioneers” rolls along pleasantly enough, but the journey isn’t nearly as much fun as it should or could have been.

“They opened a new frontier on the television landscape,” the narration intones regarding the pioneering latenight hosts, in a line indicative of the sense of self-importance that permeates each hour.

Granted, thanks to the talent on display, it’s hard to go completely wrong — from watching Jackie Gleason in “The Honeymooners” to seeing Carl Reiner in the original pilot that eventually gave rise to “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

There are, to be sure, also intriguing or amusing breadcrumbs sprinkled along the way: how CBS didn’t want Desi Arnaz playing Lucille Ball’s husband, or how a gorgeous young Barbara Eden felt compelled to hide from him during a guest shot on the trailblazing sitcom to avoid his amorous advances.

Even the colorful latenight hosts, however, are spoken of in such laboriously grandiose terms as to grow irritating. “The wide open plains of Nebraska are a good place to raise a boy,” the narration begins, laying the groundwork for the complex personality that was Johnny Carson.

Acknowledging all the pioneers inevitably means failing to do some of them justice, and while a few of TV’s darker moments are mentioned — such as the quizshow scandals or sponsor resistance to booking African-American guests on variety shows — worshipful remains the prevailing tone throughout.

Scheduled to run over four successive Wednesdays, the project does contain bits to savor strictly as a trip down memory lane, especially with the business currently mired in labor unrest. That said, the material probably will be most alluring to those who remember Jack Paar’s extended vacation after being censored on “The Tonight Show” or Arthur Godfrey torpedoing his career by coldly firing a popular act on air.

Indeed, reminding us how the world has changed, Sid Caesar — the comedic giant behind “Your Show of Shows” — laments that the remote control killed the variety show, feeding such a hunger for instant gratification that “people have no patience anymore.”

Caesar could just as easily be discussing the likely reaction to these four hours. Because while his work and that of others featured here triumphantly withstands the test of time, the sad reality is that many viewers watching “The Pioneers of Television” will feel that precise itch to reach for the remote.

The Pioneers of Television

PBS, Wed. Jan. 2, 8 p.m.


Produced by Boettcher/Trinklein. Producers, Steven J. Boettcher, Michael J. Trinklein; director, Boettcher; writer, Trinklein; editor, Stephanie Theisen.


Running time: 4 HOURS.


Narrator: Harian Saperstein.
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