There’s little genuine history on TV anymore — even the History channel has a diminishing appetite for it — which makes the efforts by PBS and HBO especially important. In the case of “The 1930s,” a five-part “American Experience” documentary, it also happens to resonate with George Santayana’s quote about those who fail to learn history being doomed to repeat it, inasmuch as the current economic collapse — and the issues raised by it — offer several eerie parallels to the Great Depression.
The first two installments — “The Crash of 1929,” chronicling the run-up to the crash; and “The Civilian Conservation Corps,” Franklin Roosevelt’s resourceful response to put people back to work — were made available, and the second is significantly stronger. Much of that has to do with the clear, compelling voices of those who participated in the program, reminding us that witnesses to history are often its best storytellers.
Scheduled on successive Mondays, the second part of the documentary plays like a companion to Ken Burns’ recent “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” inasmuch as the environmentalism championed by the program can still be seen in parks and forests today. The project also makes note of FDR’s political acumen, which included strategically funneling his work-creating resources into congressional districts that he needed to carry.
The remaining chapters focus on construction of the Hoover Dam, the Dust Bowl and how the nation rallied around a horse named Seabiscuit (which will be hard-pressed, frankly, to improve on the latest movie).
Coupled with what looks to be another strong season of “Frontline” — which is also tackling the recession with two October documentaries, “The Warning” and “Close to Home”– PBS continues to demonstrate it still has a role to play, if only thanks to the collective shortcomings of most commercial news and information sources.
Indeed, to ensure the survival of timely programming like this, it’s almost worth sitting through a pledge drive.