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PBS: An Appreciation for the Vegetables of TV (Column)

The Television Critics Association press tour is much like one of its omnipresent candy buffets: seemingly endless, and packed with so many different treats that just looking at it inspires a sugar rush/crash. As networks try to stand out and make their upcoming schedule seem the most attractive (especially in the ever-swollen age of Peak TV), they pull out all the stops and stars to make sure that the journalists in attendance will remember them come premiere time.

One network, however, makes itself stand out in all the best ways by doing exactly none of that.

Sure, PBS offers fewer flashy stars and urgent breaking news. But every panel it presented over two days at this year’s summer tour was on brand, informative, and incisive. Befitting the public broadcasting network, many panels were for nonfiction programming across an astonishing range of topics.

In 45-minute spurts, we learned about everything from violinist Itzhak Perlman’s journey (for the upcoming documentary “Itzhak”), to what it takes to be in a traveling circus (“Circus”), to the insidious and pervasive reach of shady campaign financing (“Dark Money”), to the Indian roots of rock and roll that few in the room knew anything about (“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World”). We got to see Ann Curry effuse with passion and thoughtfulness about the responsibility of telling stories for “We’ll Meet Again,” a docuseries aiming to reunite people with long-lost friends, partners, and family members. And in the middle of a tour that otherwise puts a heavy emphasis on the new, the panel for “Betty White: First Lady of Television” gave a wonderful window into the history of television that will prove a tour highlight even without White herself there. 

In fact, PBS’ most “star-studded” panel by typical TCA standards — OK, besides for the “Super Cats” panel featuring a live African serval cat named Tag(!) — was probably the one for “Finding Your Roots,” the tearjerking series that reveals celebrities’ surprising ancestries. To promote the upcoming fifth season, the panel featured participants Curry, Tig Notaro, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Joe Madison. But the conversation never once veered into their current or future projects, because everyone was too busy marveling at the very real facts of what they had discovered on the show, and the huge impact it had on their lives. In particular, it’s hard to imagine many moments on any press tour that could possibly beat Merkerson talking about how incredible it feels to know she doesn’t “come from nameless people,” or Madison’s voice cracking as he talks about the devastation of discovering his ancestor was a “discarded” part of the horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (“how do you discard a human being?”).

In a press tour full of candy, PBS provided a welcome dose of vegetables — sometimes even literally, in the case of the “Native America” panel, at which a question about corn prompted a lovely answer about care and heritage from indigenous farmer Angela Ferguson.

TCA, and television in general, can be unpredictable. But sometimes, it’s nice to just take a step back, take a look at the world around, and find something new to learn outside which movie star is moving to the “small screen” or which dating app is making a play for original content. And at that game, there’s still no beating PBS.

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