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PBS Announces 2009 Programming at TCA Press Tour

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PBS started off the television network’s winter presentation to the Television Critics Association with previews and discussions of their upcoming programming.

Blueprint America is a multi-platform project spearheaded by WNET.org, the new brand name of the New York PBS station that signifies the changing media landscape. The project focuses on the current state of the United States’ infrastructure, which drew the nation’s attention into sharp focus with the collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minnesota. A number of different PBS series, such as The Newshour with Jim Lehrer and Bill Moyers Journal, as well as public radio programs take part in contributing stories.

Great Performances – King Lear

Premieres March 25

Sir Ian McKellen toured internationally with the Royal Shakespeare Company from April 2007 through January 2008 and this performance was recorded in a London studio at the end of the run. At the Tour, McKellen said that returning to the studio felt like returning back to rehearsal. He also spoke of his process as an actor and how he tries to do something different with each performance, so this recording will be unique.

One television critic, trying to be a bit of a wise guy, came off like a buffoon and revealed why he didn’t get the film critic job, when he asked if McKellen, while on tour with the production, was recognized by people on the street as King Lear “do they say Lord of the Flies?” McKellen quickly responded, “Well, if they say Lord of the Flies I put them right. They often say 'Hi, Dumbledore!' and I say 'No, no, that's Mike Gambon [from the Harry Potter films]. I play the real wizard — the best wizard,” referring to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. He continued, “Of course, there's a confusion because Ms. Rowling has announced that Dumbledore is gay, hasn't she? So maybe that's the confusion. Whether Gandalf is gay is another matter. His wife is never mentioned and he's 7,000 years old. He must have had some experience with sex.”

Another critic asked about whether McKellen would appear nude as he did in the play, almost as if the critic was unaware that it would be airing on broadcast television. While he would not be shown naked, executive producer David Horn assured that it was implied.

PBS Exec Session

Paula Kerger, President and CEO, talked about upcoming programming. There’s a revival of The Electric Company, and Dinosaur Train is a new CGI-animated series from The Jim Henson Company geared towards preschoolers with a focus on science. Fall 2009 will see the debut of Ken Burn’s new six-part The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The footage presented was rough, but the program should be spectacular. In Spring 2010 Burns’ documentary Baseball is going to be rebroadcast and it will be joined by a new installment entitled “The Tenth Inning” which covers the past 15 years.

Kerger talked a lot about her concern regarding the crossover to digital television and the people who may be left behind. She said that she wants the deadline pushed back and more money devoted to coupons, but she offered no solutions that took into account the country’s current financial situation.

American Experience: We Shall Remain
Premiering Mondays April 13 – May 11

In association with Native American Public Telecommunications, this PBS series presents a five-part series dealing with the Native American experience, which producer Ric Burns made clear, is an American story, not just a Native American one. However, it is told from their perspective in front of and behind the camera. The episodes cover Massasoit and the English settlers, Tecumseh, the Trail of Tears, Geronimo, and Wounded Knee. The makers of the series found the stories slightly difficult to tell because the tribes aren’t completely in agreement.

One critic asked about the accuracy of the bias being put forth, and one of the Native American speakers pointed out it was about time their bias joined the record.

George Carlin: The Mark Twain Prize
Premieres February 4

The Kennedy Center posthumously presented Carlin its Mark Twain Prize for Humor, but Carlin was made aware that he was going to receive the honor shortly before his death. Carlin was also involved in selecting some of the participants. Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, said it was a great evening and her dad would have been proud. Lewis Black and Richard Belzer agreed that every comedian since Carlin owed a debt to the man.

One critic asked why clips used of Carlin were censored and why bother honoring the dirty-word guy if you aren’t going to let him use dirty words, a question that showed ignorance on two fronts by limiting Carlin’s work to just that of a “dirty-word guy” and by forgetting what medium the program is airing on, leading this spectator to wonder how it is professional television critics have a job without fully grasp the medium they are critical of. Richard Belzer pointed out the obvious, “If the philosophy of the network is to not offend people who they think might be offended, I don't think this hurts the show.”

When Belzer was later asked about his series Law & Order: SVU and the effects its move to 9pm might have, he stated how unfortunate he thought NBC’s decision was. Meaning no disrespect to Jay Leno, he pointed out the many people who would lose their jobs because of the network’s desperation.

Looking For Lincoln
Premieres February 11

One of the many things devoted to the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth is this program hosted and written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. with commentary by noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The two-hour special and accompanying book looks at the controversies, like emancipation, which still surround Lincoln and gives time to both his admirers and his critics.

Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America
Premieres January 14

Hosted by Billy Crystal and narrated by Amy Sedaris, Make ‘Em Laugh is a six-part series with each episode focusing on certain character comedic types from nerds to breadwinners to wise guys. It is filled with many clips and interviews. Portions of a Web-only bonus episode that examines Internet humor were shown, but what we saw seemed to not fully grasp the subject. Rather than deal with humor created for the Internet like Will Farrell and his foul-mouth landlady Pearl, they show comedians riffing on YouTube sensations like the Numma Numma kid and the Star Wars kid as if they were on a VH1 countdown show. The producers seem to miss the point because the examples of humor are derived from people laughing at other people and not with them. Hopefully, the television program is better focused.

Masterpiece Mystery! – Wallander
Premieres May 10, 17 and 31

From author Henning Mankell’s international best-selling series, Kenneth Branagh stars as Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander in three episodes. Wallander has to deal with some grisly crimes while dealing with turmoil in his own life from his recent divorce, his diabetes, and his Alzheimer’s-ridden father. There are seven other books in the series and after Branagh stated he would like to return to the character because of how much it intrigued him, Mystery! executive producer Rebecca Eaton announced the BBC has agreed to co-finance with WGBH Boston another three.

Masterpiece Classic – “The Tales of Dickens”
Oliver Twist – Premieres February 15 and 22
Little Dorrit – Premieres March 29 to April 26
The Curiosity Shop Premieres May 3
David Copperfield (A rebroadcast starring pre-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe) – March 15 and 22

Masterpiece Classic showcases four Dickens tales this spring. Dickens is a writer, like many who continue to live on in the cultural consciousness well passed their time because, as Timothy Spall, who plays Fagin in Oliver Twist, suggested the themes they wrote about, such as the destructive power of money, are universal. Andrew Davies, the screenwriter of the successful Bleak House, which aired on Masterpiece, had always wanted to tell the story of Little Dorrit and is happy that his wish has been fulfilled.

Independent Lens
Tulia, Texas – Premieres February 10
Crips and Bloods: Made in America – Premieres May 12

The anthology series premieres with Tulia, Texas, a documentary that allows all sides to weigh in on the amazing story about how one of the largest drug busts in the state was corrupted by a narcotics agent who was wanted by the police. When 39 of the 46 arrested were revealed to be African American, racial divisions were heightened and were further tested when it was discovered the operation was tainted.

Director Stacy Peralta, who made the critically acclaimed Dogtown and Z-Boys about the 1970s skateboard culture, examines another Los Angeles story as he presents Crips and Bloods: Made in America about the decades-long civil war that has been raging on the streets of South Central Los Angeles.

Great Performances – Chess in Concert

Slated for the summer, Great Performances will be presenting Chess in Concert, a musical by Tim Rice and Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from ABBA. The show wasn’t successful on Broadway in its premiere but the songs have lived on, including “One Night in Bangkok” which hit the pop charts. Set in Iceland during the Cold Warm, it tells the story of a chess championship between a Russian (Josh Groban) and an American (Rent’s Adam Pascal) and the love triangle involving one of their managers (Wicked’s Idina Menzel). Rice stated this is the version he would like for people to remember.

For all the programs listed above, check local listings for the date and times in your area.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS