‘Pioneers of Television’s’ Paper-Thin Look at Past

Frankly, I should be the target audience for something called “Pioneers of Television,” the third installment in PBS’ ongoing documentary franchise about the medium. But I found myself growing slightly exasperated with the project’s paper-thin approach, despite the well-chosen clips and nostalgic moments.

Coming on the heels of previous versions in 2008 and 2011, the new four-chapter run begins with “Funny Ladies” on Jan. 15, followed on successive Tuesdays by “Primetime Soaps,” “Superheroes” and
LouisGossettJr396[1]“Miniseries.” This time, Ryan Seacrest serves as narrator, which is perhaps a tip-off to the project’s vanilla-flavored tone.

The first installment is easily the least satisfying, largely because the broad umbrella offers a bit too much latitude, and the producers seem determined to include a variety of talent, eating up time that could have been allocated to longer segments devoted to true titans such as Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore.

The others, by contrast, are more tightly focused, especially the soaps, which zeroes in on “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest,” and benefits from an interview with Larry Hagman, who died in November.

Still, the title “Pioneers,” as handled in this context, is something of a misnomer, since practically no
MaryTylerMoore270[1]producers, writers or executives — many of whom are happily still with us — are included in the process. In its pursuit of star quality, the program thus excludes truly pioneering figures like “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds” producer David L. Wolper from its miniseries section, relying solely on interviews with the stars. Not to diminish actors, but when one thinks of TV’s true pioneers, they’re hardly the only group that deserves to be heard from or recognized.

For all that, the extended coverage of “Roots” is quite strong, particularly if you haven’t seen the miniseries in awhile. By contrast, the “Superheroes” hour touches on the problem of type-casting that plagued many of the stars — most notably “Superman’s” George Reeves — but then rather shyly tiptoes away from it.

Taken for what it is and on its terms, “Pioneers” is a breezy enough stroll down memory lane. Still, it’s a shame a franchise paying tribute to TV bold risk-takers of the past — in the less-stressful confines of PBS — chooses, in its execution, to wind up pretty timidly going nowhere.


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