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Television review: 'Pioneers of Television'

Science fiction, crime dramas, westerns and local kids' shows are showcased in the four-part PBS series.

January 18, 2011|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

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.

The one hour of the four I recommend enthusiastically, because it represents not merely a lost type of program but a whole way of broadcasting, is that on the kids' shows. That relationship — from local broadcaster to local audience, and back again — has gone forever in this conglomerated America, barring some miracle or apocalypse. As with espresso drinks and casual wear, there are certain benefits to the top-down network model; there is money to be spent on production and on talent. But the system shaves off the rough edges as well and eliminates the feeling not only that anything might happen — including something bad — but that it might happen right down the street.

L.A. natives may remember Sheriff John or Shrimpenstein, who do not appear; New Yorkers might recall Chuck McCann and Hawaiians a pre- "Batman" Adam West, both of whom do. And apparently everyone in Phoenix knows and loved "Wallace and Ladmo," which ran from 1954 to 1989 and is offered here as an emblem of the happy hysteria that TV can inspire when let off its leash.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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