We Should Organize a Staff Field Trip to Shenandoah: Ken Burns Take on National Parks on PBS

I’m under double deadline here and am therefore forbidden from saying one word about television. Not one word. Not a word about there being Harlem Globetrotters on The Amazing Race or about how Community and Bored to Death are essentially the same (good) show or wondering how Trauma could open with not one but two helicopters crashing and yet not have Paul McCrane involved.

But I do hope you’re all enjoying Ken Burns’ latest opus, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, as much as I am. I’m soaking in national parks around here, and as such I forget sometimes what a miracle that is. Burns doesn’t–like the best historians, he tells a story, and this story is one of democracy. Thinking about the way the world operated until just recently, it’s astonishing that Yellowstone Park isn’t an aristocrat’s gated summer backyard. Thinking about the way the world operates these days, it’s astonishing that Bryce Canyon National Park wasn’t hoarded away by someone as rich as Mitt Romney. But they weren’t–they belong to us. The national parks are the places where this land really was made for you and me. Burns saw that slender thread and has woven it into his typical gorgeous tapestry, full of wonder, nobility, surprises, and good humor (oh, John Muir–you really were something). Someday we’ll be watching a five-part documentary on PBS entitled Ken Burns: America’s Best Storyteller. Going on right now on PBS, often with multiple showings a day and, in at least some locales, starting over from the beginning next week. You really do have to check your local listings on this one, but don’t miss it.

More Than Meatballs and Candy Fish: WALLANDER Premieres Tonight on PBS

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We occasionally mock the plethora of procedurals on TV (well, pretty much every time we mention the CSIs or the Laws and Orders of the world). However, one of us has developed a Mentalist habit of late (the other suspects that Simon Baker is actually The Joker and can’t quite go there), and we’ve always been guilty of enjoying crime stories we can pretend are classing up the joint. That’s how we get away with loving BBC mysteries like Life on Mars or Blood on the Wire and PBS attempts like the great Prime Suspect–if Helen Mirren is headlining, it has to be quality, right?

The latest BBC entrant in this derby–conveniently showing on PBS to give you double class points–is Wallander, based on a series of books that center on a Swedish police detective. So–British, public TV, and based on literature–what more could you ask? That the lead be played by Kenneth Branagh. Yes, the Kenneth Branagh who filmed Henry V and has done Woody Allen films and recently graced the London stage in a Chekhov play. He’ll class up the joint just fine–and you still get ax murders in this first episode. Wallander recently won the BAFTA for best TV drama over fare like Doctor Who, and you know how we feel about Doctor Who, so our expectations are pretty high. Premiere tonight on PBS, which requires checking your local listings.

We Need a Little Opera, Right This Very Minute

Now that pledge drive season is over and you can watch PBS without the threat of Big Bird or Betty White cutting you if you don’t pick up the phone (I can say it–I’m on the monthly plan), check out the fairly amazing list of stuff coming up on public television. They’re not just updating Masterpiece Theater–they’re your one-stop upper-crust holiday entertainment shop. If PBS is assuming I’m going to be sitting on the floor, weeping and trying to untangle Christmas lights or 300 yards of wrapping paper and therefore in need of some holiday cheer in the form of high art, they’d be right. As is always true with public television, you’ll want to check your local listings, but a quick nationwide spot check suggests the following are all premiering on the same date, whether you’re in Iowa or Idaho.

Wednesday, December 12Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner is a fine documentary on the author of Angels in America. While it hits all the highlights–the controversy over both Angels and Homebody/Kabul; the difficulties of growing up gay in a Southern, Jewish family–it was the footage of Brundibar that made me cry when I saw this film at Sundance. Don’t know the story of Brundibar? I didn’t either. The entire broadcast will be worth it just for that.

Monday, December 17The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny will cut right through any holiday treacle you might be choking on with its Brechtian satire. If you only know Audra McDonald from the mess that is Private Practice, see her in her musical-theater element–and prepare to be wowed.

Wednesday, December 19Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir featuring Sissel broadcasts the Choir’s annual Christmas program. Dancers! Bells! The Titanic singer who isn’t Celine Dion! Plus, the choir is utterly stunning–if you haven’t heard them do “Angels from the Realm of Glory,” with which they close the concert every year, then you haven’t heard Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played. It is possible I am slightly biased, as the soloist on “The Wexford Carol” is my neighbor, but once you hear him sing and remember that he named his beagles Eowyn and Arwen, you’ll join me in my bias.

PBS Updates MASTERPIECE THEATRE

andersonmasterpiece.jpgAfter 37 years, PBS is updating its revered anthology series, Masterpiece Theatre. Starting next year the show will be split into three mini-seasons, each with its own name and host.

Masterpiece Classic will premiere on Jan. 13 with new host Gillian Anderson, already familiar to PBS fans for her turn as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. The new series will showcase 10 programs through May, including adaptations of all six of Jane Austen’s novels; Cranford, a three-part miniseries starring Judi Dench; My Boy Jack, starring Daniel Radcliffe as the son of Rudyard Kipling; and a new adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View by Andrew Davies (the scribe behind several of the new Austen adaptations, as well as the highly esteemed 1996 Pride and Prejudice).

Masterpiece Mystery! will debut in the summer, absorbing the Mystery! anthology series that has been a PBS fixture since 1980. In the fall, Masterpiece Contemporary will focus on dramas set in the present day. Hosts for the other two Masterpiece mini-seasons have yet to be announced.