NPR : Fresh Air

'Primetime' TV, Like You've Never Seen It Before

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Almost every time TV takes a look at itself, and tries to explore or explain what it does as a medium, the result is a major disappointment — at least to me. I want TV to take itself seriously, but it almost never does. Every show about TV is either one of those dumb "Top 100" lists that networks like E! and VH1 crank out every month, or it's a show that's built entirely around the guests it can book, the clips it can afford, and the shows on its own network it wants to promote.

I'm happy to say — actually, I'm thrilled to say — that we're about to be treated to a glorious exception. A new four-part documentary series called America in Primetime premieres this Sunday on PBS, and it's the smartest TV show about television I've seen in about 20 years.

Each one-hour installment looks at a different type of TV character — independent women, the man of the house, the misfit and the crusader — and examines them very thoughtfully and very entertainingly. One of the things America in Primetime does that's so smart, and so refreshing, is that it gathers together many of the stars and writer-producers who have made the very best television, from classic shows to programs still in production today, and has them talk not only about their shows, but those created by others.

Another neat trick — and I've never seen this done before — is that it doesn't segregate comedy and drama. So in a segment on the Man of the House, you get Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family, talking about that show's characters; and Rob Reiner, who starred as Archie Bunker's son-in-law Meathead, talking about a moment of improvisation with co-star Carroll O'Connor. But you also get Tom Fontana, the producer of such dark dramas as Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz, raving about the results of that improv as an appreciative viewer as well as a gifted TV writer himself.

In this documentary, directed by Lloyd Kramer and executive-produced by Kramer, Tom Yellin and others, there's no narration and no writing as such. Just people being interviewed about their craft, making observations about TV, and lots and lots of clips from television to make and probe each point. That's why PBS is the perfect home for this kind of program — public television gets special dispensation to show these clips without having to pay the normal rights fees.

So we see a lot of television here. And for once, the right clips. We see the connection between Larry David's writing on Seinfeld and his performing on Curb Your Enthusiasm. We see how Mary Tyler Moore led to Murphy Brown, and how they, in turn, led to Nurse Jackie.

And when these people talk about TV, they don't feel the need to play nice and agree. While most writer-producers in this show talk about television drama series as a novel, allowing an examination of characters over dozens of hours instead of just a movie-length drama, Sopranos creator David Chase asks what's so great about that? Who needs a Casablanca II, III or IV? And when it comes to the idea of having a serial killer as your central character in Showtime's Dexter, you'd be surprised who doesn't approve of that concept. At least I was surprised. Because right along with Michael C. Hall, the star of Dexter, talking about his vengeful character, you have Tom Fontana and then David Simon, creator of The Wire, talking about why they think Dexter goes too far.

I love the debate that ensues from that — just as much as I love Dexter and The Wire and Homicide. I love America in Primetime, too. When you watch it, you're likely to be excited by the examples they choose: The hour on "Misfits" covers everything from The Addams Family and Freaks and Geeks to Taxi and True Blood. And every example they show is a TV program you should seek out and enjoy.

The same goes for America in Primetime.

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