TV Eye

PBS Shows Its Roots

“The Astronomer” airs April 17 on PBS’ The Territory series.
“The Astronomer” airs April 17 on PBS’ The Territory series.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Roots. For African-Americans, this landmark miniseries revealed the psychic and spiritual cost of oppression. For others, it popularized genealogy and made people of all races and backgrounds rethink ideas about race, identity, and history.

In spite of this legacy, it's disheartening to contemplate the present moment in TV. Blacks, Latinos, and other ethnic minorities are still grossly underrepresented on TV. Sure, there are exceptions, like Andre Braugher, Bernie Mac, Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, and La Tanya Richardson.

Entering this TV landscape is Gregory Nava's American Family. CBS first bought the series, then passed on it after execs watched the pilot. That is their right, of course. But then I thought of all the duds CBS did green-light this season: Citizen Baines, Danny, Wolf Lake, The Ellen Show, and most recently, First Monday. And I was reminded of the warning many blacks and Latinos who are the first in their families to enter college either figure out or are told explicitly: You don't have the luxury of being just good.

Thankfully, American Family premiered on PBS last week, a spin-off from Nava's 1995 film Mi Familia. It's good. It's not great, but it could be. Many series launch with lackluster episodes, only to find their footing later in the run, Seinfeld serving as a classic example. With Latino talent in front of and behind the camera, American Family is in a position to accomplish what Roots did earlier for African-Americans: present the story of a Mexican-American family with a sympathetic voice, which, in turn, tells us all a little about ourselves.

Unfortunately, Nava's scripts are weak. He tends toward overkill, stuffing in all the cultural references he can. Given his experience at CBS, this approach is perhaps unintended. But it's not good storytelling. As other writers pen the series, Nava can focus on directing, which is where his talent lies.

While the Big Four networks form diversity committees, it's encouraging to see PBS step up to give American Family a chance. I invite you to do the same.

American Family airs Wednesdays, 7pm, on PBS.

Capture the Flag

The Confederate flag was first conceived as a means to honor Confederate soldiers killed during the Civil War. Today, it's scorned as a symbol of racism by some, embraced as a proud banner of Southern heritage by others. This debate and the history of the flag is the subject of filmmaker and UT grad student Ryan Deussing's excellent documentary, Confederacy Theory.

Deussing's film focuses on South Carolina, where the Confederate flag was raised without fanfare atop the state Capitol in 1962. As the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation pushed through the South, other Southern states either diminished or eliminated the image of the Confederacy from their state flags. South Carolina did not, galvanizing critics who called for its removal.

To his credit, Deussing features opinions from all sides of the debate. Fascinating archival footage -- including a reunion of slaves who served as Confederate soldiers in the Civil War -- offers an engrossing testament to the power of symbols and the extent to which people will go to protect them.

Confederacy Theory airs Feb. 4, 10pm, on PBS.

Territorial Expansion

The Houston-based Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP) begins its 26th season of The Territory, a showcase of new and innovative film, video, and digital media. Originally featuring Texas filmmakers, the series has evolved to include national and international filmmakers.

The Territory airs Wednesdays at 10:30pm on PBS, beginning Feb. 6 with Spanish filmmaker Javier Rebollo's "The Open Luggage." See the complete lineup below. For more information, visit

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Ryan Deussing, Confederacy Theory, PBS, The Territory, Roots, Mi Familia, American Family, Gregory Nava

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