From the producers who took us through the formative years of television drama in episodes on the Western, local kids TV, science fiction, and crime drama, the PBS documentary series The Pioneers of Television returns for more time-travel through the electronic hearth of our TV sets in Season 3.
If you like comedy-insider documentary, the first one-hour installment, “Funny Ladies” is for you, as we are treated to a look at the business of comedy through women's eyes, with reminiscences from Betty White, Tiny Fey, the often-overlooked Pat Carroll, Carol Burnett, Cloris Leachman, Joan Rivers, and Margaret Cho. Phyllis Diller did her last interview for this episode, and comments from recently departed Marla Gibbs (The Jeffersons) are riveting as well. Lucille Ball is remembered with admiration for keeping her husband, traveling band leader Desi Arnaz, close to home by creating I Love Lucy in 1951. She is also remembered for her mastery of physical comedy, while simultaneously breaking the stereotype insisting that funny women be unattractive. The experiences of African-American women in TV comedy like Jackie "Moms" Mabley (1894-2009), who wasn't booked on The Ed Sullivan Show until the late 1960s, and Gibbs, who remembers there being no work for years, until she delivered one crack-smart line on The Jeffersons, are especially undertold.
Second episode "Primetime Soaps" provides a somewhat hazy recollection from the stars of series like Dynasty, Dallas ("Who Shot J.R.?"), and Knot's Landing. Joan Collins (Dynasty) discusses her famous on-screen brawl with Linda Evans (would she contract AIDS from her screen kiss with stricken Rock Hudson??), and makes the arguable claim that it was the first "knock down, drag out" fight between females on television. Meanwhile, Donna Mills (resident devious tart, Knot's Landing) takes credit for the protruding shoulder pads favored by women of her day. The only disappointment here is the omission of Falcon Crest, aka Falcon's Crust, our favorite of the era.
Third episode takes us through the world of "Superheroes" with commentary from Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk), Adam West and Burt Ward (Batman’s Batman and Robin, respectively), and Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman). But it is the still-fetching former Catwoman Julie Newmar who hooks us here, as she whispers seductively, "Sometimes if a costume is right, you don't have to act." Ignoring propriety, she also advises, "When you have a line, you want to warm it up, make it bigger. Then say it."
The final episode takes a look at miniseries, those office watercooler magnet of the Eighties. It is always a good thing to revisit Roots, the Alex Haley. 1977 ratings blockbuster dealing with the history of slavery in America, and this look back is poignant. Richard Chamberlain figures strongly in the second half, as we suppose he must, since the episode features the first reunion of The Thorn Birds. Ever.
The only drawback we see for this season is that, having been spoiled by Kelsey Grammer's liquid voiceover skills in the second season, we are in the hands – or tonsils – of narrator Ryan Seacrest, and it is not the best use of his talents.
Season 3 of The Pioneers of Television premieres locally on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 7pm on KLRU and continues Tuesdays until Feb. 6.
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