TV on DVD: Pioneers of Television: Season 2
The roots of Westerns, Crime Dramas, Science Fiction and more
"Pioneers of Television: Season 2" (PBS)
Three years after PBS's original "Pioneers of Television" mini-series, the show is revived with four more chapters on some of the most resilient genres of the TV landscape of the fifties to the seventies. This time around, the spotlight hits the long-time staples "Westerns" (the dominant genre of the early decades of television) and "Crime Dramas" (which overtook westerns in the seventies), niche genre "Science Fiction" and the subterranean "Local Kids' TV."
The show still plays more like an introduction to the greats of the genre than an analysis of the genre or the TV culture of the era, but it does a good job of getting a lay of the TV landscape and quite rightly focuses on a few key shows from each genre. For "Science Fiction," of course, that boils down to "Star Trek," "The Twilight Zone" and the anti-science fiction goofiness of Irwin Allen's "Lost in Space," which is about all this episode covers. It works for its thesis (science fiction was a genre where both Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry could create "modern morality plays" and offer social commentary under the guise of the fantastic) but completely ignores the early pulp efforts like "Rocky Jones" and the first major science fiction series, the live-TV anthology "Tales of Tomorrow."
"Crime Dramas" and "Westerns" both do a great job of covering the best and the most influential shows of their respective genres and still offering some insight to what made them so successful and enduring within the confines of an hour. "Crime Dramas" is the most fluid of genres here, beginning with Jack Webb and "Dragnet" and evolving into violent period gangster drama of "The Untouchables," the cold war espionage of "Mission: Impossible" and "I Spy" and the detective shows "Columbo" and "The Rockford Files," but there is time to explore the groundbreaking casting of Bill Cosby in "I Spy" (the first American series with a black and white buddy team as best friend), colleagues and equals) and the success of "Police Woman."
For some reason, chronology is thrown to the wind for "Westerns," which opens with "Maverick" (which, like the title suggests, was a maverick approach to a conventional genre) and circles around until it ends with "Gunsmoke," the grandfather of the adult TV western and the first significant small screen western hit. But again, for all the restrictions of the time constraints, the producers pick a fine slate of shows to spotlight—"The Rifleman" (created by Sam Peckinpah), "Bonanza" (and the all-male cast), "Big Valley" (and the matriarch western), "The Wild, Wild West" (and James Bond on the frontier), "Daniel Boone" and "High Chapparel." All episodes rely on a few survivors from the era to talk about the shows (archival interviews are reserved for just a few folks, among them Rod Serling and James Arness).
Available as a box set or individually. No supplements but there are a few trivia pages that play out between the show and the final credits (they appear to have been made as bumpers for PBS pledge drives).