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When television was just a pup

A PBS documentary series looks at the small world of the early days of the small screen.

January 02, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Pioneers of Television," a four-part PBS documentary that begins tonight and runs Wednesdays through Jan. 23, offers an entertaining, sometimes enlightening look back at the very thing you'll be watching, if you watch. A television documentary about television has a certain advantage over other documentaries in that what it shows you is not merely a record of something -- of migrating geese, say, or a war -- but the thing itself. TV: It's what's on television.

The point of "Pioneers," to which it does not strictly stick, is to highlight the (mostly) early models upon which later shows were based. (The word "template" is used more than once.) The funny stuff is emphasized -- the four episodes, in order, are "Sitcoms," "Late Night," "Variety" and "Game Shows," all largely comedic forms -- perhaps because it's easier to communicate their essence in short clips. (Drama takes time; comedy takes the time it takes to tell a joke or to fall on one's rump.)

"Nearly every living star from television's early days has been interviewed," according to the press handout, and though this would seem unlikely, if not impossible, it might be close to true. (The people who created television are, roughly speaking, of the same, famously disappearing generation that fought World War II.) Conveniently, many of them qualify for multiple episodes -- Merv Griffin (seen in his last interview) hosted a talk show and created game shows; Dick Van Dyke briefly hosted a game show, appeared on variety shows, had a sitcom, and so on. And some episodes reach further forward than others: "Late Night" stretches to include Arsenio Hall (the youngest talking head here, at 50, and the only black one, which will tell you something about the complexion of pioneer-era television), while "Variety" runs all the way to the end of the genre. Tony Orlando was there, and is here.

Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith, Betty White, Phyllis Diller, Jim Nabors, Ed McMahon, Tommy Smothers, Sid Caesar, Tim Conway and Jay Leno are also on hand to comment, along with many faces of the sort you don't expect to see in PBS documentaries: Pat Boone, Andy Williams, Monty Hall. Most are eloquent and funny; some are alarmingly aged (the high-def format will do them no favors); more are surprisingly youthful.

TV was very much a smaller world back then -- a place in which Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" could earn a 96 share, numbers not even the Second Coming could pull nowadays, unless the writers strike continues. Yet it's still too large a subject for this series to be anything more than suggestive, sometimes frustratingly so, of its riches. (The "Late Night" episode especially profits from looking closely, and more thoroughly, at Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, three successive hosts of "The Tonight Show.")

Another problem (I blame Ken Burns) is the fog of nostalgia that occasionally blows in ("The traditional variety show may be gone, but we still have the memories of the stars that brought us together at the very beginning of the television age"), making the material seem more, not less remote.

The filmmakers also insist on running music under their interviews, which at times gives "Pioneer" the air of those short features that candidates for political office order up to convince you of their adherence to the old values and oneness with the American community. And there are needless dramatizations that add nothing but pretense. One real production still (and there are some good ones here) says much more than the most expert re-creation.

But even were you to regard "Pioneers of Television" only as a parade of random clips and pictures -- in a YouTube frame of mind, as it were -- it's a thoroughly enjoyable series, and a welcome one.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Pioneers of Television: Sitcoms'

Where: KCET

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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