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'Pioneers of Television' on PBS

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Angie Dickinson, of 'Police Woman' fame.
  • Angie Dickinson, of 'Police Woman' fame.

8 p.m. Tuesdays

WFYI (Channel 20)

PBS' four-hour Pioneers of Television is stunningly good. I say this because it made me nostalgic for genres I rarely/never watched, shows I never saw and actors I have no particular interest in.

Truthfully, I didn't even want to watch Pioneers of Television, but Kelsey Grammer's warm narration and the fascinating facts that kept popping up roped me in. I think you'll have the same reaction.

This occasional series from PBS (it debuted as a prime-time special in 2005) started last week with science fiction, a genre I truly despise. (Nope, never seen an episode of Star Trek and, nope, didn't watch this hour.)

This week, Pioneers features Westerns, followed by crime dramas on Feb. 1 and local children's TV on Feb. 8. This week's and next week's are nicely done; the kids' shows hour is an absolute gem.

The Westerns hour focuses on James Garner, who gave the genre a smile as reluctant hero Bret Maverick on Maverick; Barbara Stanwyck of The Big Valley, who, according to the testimonials here, must have been the nicest woman to ever draw breath in Hollywood; Robert Conrad and TheWild Wild West, which was canceled during a crackdown on violent content on TV; and Gunsmoke, which John Wayne turned down but recommended James Arness for.

Along the way, we also learn about Sam Peckinpah's gift to TV, The Rifleman, which started out as a violent show but evolved into stories of the bond between a single father and his son, and Bonanza. Over the years, many comics have joked about how horny Bonanza's Cartwright men must have been, given that there were so few women around the Ponderosa. Turns out, there was a reason for that: The show's creator thought too many men on television were weak and beholden to women.

Hm.

Garner – who today looks like he was separated at birth from Merle Haggard – Conrad, Linda Evans and Ed Ames are some of the actors who comment about Westerns. They, and others, describe these shows as morality plays that reflected American values and provided subtle but important commentary about race relations. I can't support or rebut that since The Rifleman was the only one of these shows I watched with any frequency (in reruns), and that was because I thought the opening, where Chuck Connors rapid-fired his rifle, was so cool.

Crime dramas seem to have had more impact on the culture – and TV in general – judging by next week's installment of Pioneers. We're told that Jack Webb introduced both the teleprompter and the close-up shot on Dragnet. Bill Cosby was not the Jackie Robinson of TV but simply Jackie Robinson, according to Robert Culp, who starred with Cosby on I Spy, the first show to give an African-American equal footing with a white. (Cosby demurs, saying, "If I made such a tremendous impact on things, it wasn't enough.") And Angie Dickinson opened the doors for women on cop shows when she starred on Police Woman from 1974-78 – a show that, incidentally, looks as cheesy today as it did then.

I never watched The Rockford Files, but based on what I saw here, I have to say it looks like fun. Mike Connors has a good sense of humor about his time as Detective Joe Mannix on Mannix. And – maybe this is common knowledge, but I didn't know it – Lucille Ball was the reason Mission: Impossible was produced in the first place. (She approved the show for Desilu Productions, and CBS, eager to keep her happy, put it on the air.)

Although Westerns were the dominant genre in the early days of television – more than 100 aired from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, we're told – the people in crime dramas feel more deserving of the title Pioneers of Television.

The unheralded pioneers are probably the local TV stars, who generally were loved in their cities and unknown elsewhere. (Children's TV also provided entry-level work for Stan Freberg – whose work on the Los Angeles kids' show Time for Beanie was watched by Albert Einstein, among others – Fred Rogers, Jim Henson, Merv Griffin, Ted Knight, Soupy Sales, Adam West and Willard Scott.)

The stars of this Pioneers hour are clearly the two men behind Wallace and Ladmo, a fairly subversive, longtime institution of Phoenix TV. Their sketches included "Low Budget Talk Show," and in the scene we see, one plays the host and the other is a clown who's only in it for the money.

Host: "Boffo, how do you personally feel about the kids?"

Boffo: "It's a buck."

No wonder this show lasted until 1989, long after most children's programming was being delivered via syndication.

Also fascinating in this hour is the examination of two kids' shows that managed to go nationwide – Romper Room and Bozo. More than 100 "teachers" starred on local Romper Room programs; Nancy Claster, who created the show in Baltimore, trained each one and made sure they stuck to the script she created. (One fairly shocking clip shows Romper Room kids praying before they eat.)

Larry Harmon, meanwhile, franchised his Bozo the Clown character to more than 100 stations across the country. Chicago's Bob Bell was the most popular of those Bozos; his raspy voice inspired Dan Castellaneta'sKrusty the Clown on The Simpsons. And Bozo also fueled the creation of Ronald McDonald.

There's more, but that's enough from me. Watch and enjoy.

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