Television has been around so long now — more than 60 years in the commercial form we know today — that to many of its viewers its origins are lost in the swirling mists of time, available to those who seek it out on video, but increasingly less a presence in the rota of reruns. "Pioneers of Television," a four-part series that begins Tuesday on KOCE, falls somewhere between archaeology and nostalgia.
This is a second installment: Four earlier hours (on sitcoms, game shows, variety shows and talk shows) were broadcast in 2008. This time the series focuses by turns on science fiction, crime dramas, westerns and local kids' shows. Of these, crime has become the dominant mode of television drama and sci-fi has never been healthier. The western, by contrast, which once dominated the airwaves as buffalo did the prairies, has all but disappeared, as the world it pictures — a world still in living memory when "Gunsmoke" premiered — has grown historically remote, its metaphors no longer as useful or else adopted by other genres: The space opera often does what the horse opera used to. And of the local kids' show, more below.
For the most part, "Pioneers" is entertaining and enlightening without feeling quite essential, the sort of PBS package that seems at times designed to warm the hearts and loosen the purse strings of viewers of a certain age and income. The emphasis is on shows from the 1960s and '70s — the word "pioneer" must be understood as a relative term — with only an occasional nod to the far '50s and no attempt to be comprehensive. Each episode focuses on a few instructive examples of the genre, generalizes from them, and provides anecdotes and analysis from people who were there, some of whom — including Stephen J. Cannell, Peter Graves, Robert Culp and Fred Rogers — are no longer here. Indeed, the series becomes at times a sort of memento mori, especially when actors and actresses you might not have seen lately are contrasted with their younger, more vital selves.