America In Primetime

America In Primetime debuts at 8 p.m. ET tonight on PBS.

Over the next month, PBS is airing several hour-long installments of America In Primetime, beginning with “Independent Woman.” Judging from this inaugural episode, the miniseries will lean heavily on new interviews with past TV legends and current visionaries, in addition to a wealth of archival footage. The latter is a key strength throughout “Independent Woman.” It’s amazing to see just how striking and spirited Mary Tyler Moore was playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, let alone as Mary Richards on her eponymous sitcom years later. Ditto for how both her seminal characters evolved out of Lucille Ball’s guile and beauty on I Love Lucy. But it’s also great to see Roseanne Barr aging with such pride, grace and a bit of hard-earned, trademark moxie. “These people who make television, they’re like aliens,” she says to the documentary’s cameras, her hair a translucent, wispy streak of grey. “They don’t have any real-life experience or any values.” 

“Independent Woman” resonates best when the powerful women behind the important television they fought to make speak about their obstacles and point of view. Barr, Murphy Brown creator Diane English, and Roseanne co-creator Marcy Carsey in particular share candid memories about the challenges of dealing with narrow-mindedness. As Brown star Candice Bergen recalls, CBS wanted English to rewrite her character as a 30-year-old who’d returned from a spa, rather than 40 and newly emerged from Betty Ford. Carsey, meanwhile, remembers how at least one network passed on Roseanne, assuming incorrectly that no one would watch an overweight middle-class woman on primetime.

Some of the men behind the women have telling anecdotes as well. Dick Van Dyke Show writer Carl Reiner, for one, rues the fact that Laura Petrie never moved forward as both a dancer and housewife. And both James L. Brooks, who created the Mary Tyler Moore, and Darren Starr, the man behind Sex And The City, deny overtly politicizing either show. Funny, to them, came first. Any other subtext arose from what was incidentally happening in the world around them, or what their lead actresses brought to the roles.

As for said starlets, not all of their testimony offers such keen insights. Without question, Sarah Jessica Parker is synonymous with Carrie Bradshaw, and all the Desperate Housewives have internalized their alter egos over the years. But most of what Parker, Eva Longoria, or even Julianna Margulies have to say in the documentary feels very broad. And with some of their segments spaced far apart (most of the hour is chronological, although it opens in present-day with The Good Wife), redundant exposition about escaping the traditional model of woman-as-doting-housewife feels all the more inert. 

Only so much can really be accomplished in what amounts to 52 total minutes of actual documentary. Tom Yellin and his crew have taken the right approach by sharpening their focus on primetime, which will allow them to explore recurring themes such as the influence of advertising in each future edition. In “Independent Woman,” the message is both communicated and illustrated with tremendous clarity and credibility: Women on TV can be anything, and that’s owed in large part to a select group of creative females who persevered with that idea despite social norms of their time.

Whether Grey’s Anatomy is an accurate symbol of that empowerment can be debated, and there’s definitely room for a deeper exploration of other representations, even if they’re unconventional, à la My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase as an ambassador for teen girls coming into their own. “Independent Woman” also concludes, as aforementioned, on a decidedly up note, although there are plenty of questions about why most of domestic advertising is still directed almost exclusively toward women, and how the interviewees feel about current programs where women aren’t front and center, and are far from self-possessed. But that’s also when it’s up to the viewer on some level to propel the conversation further at home. And as far as entertainment value goes, I’ll spend my evening watching anything that features Carl Reiner opining, “If you can bring up kids and send non-toxic human beings into the world, that’s about the best thing you can do.”

Stray observations:

  • Judging by the opening credits, someone’s a Freaks And Geeks fan.
  • Such great, funny footage from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and I Love Lucy. Classic stuff.
  • James L. Brooks on developing TV circa Mary Tyler Moore Show: “They said there are three things you can’t do a show about: Jews, people with mustaches, and divorced people.” Clearly, they didn’t foresee reality TV.
  • It’s definitely curious that Elisabeth Moss is featured in interview, and a segment on Peggy, Joan et al. from Mad Men seemed inevitable, but never happens. But yet, so much Grey’s Anatomy?
  • Mary Tyler Moore, summing up the female dilemma in TV quite succinctly: “Women by and large, over the ages, have needed to be liked and approved because that’s all they had.”
  • Fascinating blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a news clipping pronouncing that Murphy Brown was watched in 29.3 percent of all homes. Startling to think of what a symbiotic impact TV could once have on social mores at the time.
  • Julianna Margulies has never looked more gorgeous than she does in this special for some reason.  Although, I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one thinking about how several of the actresses interviewed have acknowledged or been rumored to have cosmetic surgery. Would have been interesting, if a bit discursive, to touch on.
  • What shows/characters do you think the show missed?

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