The documentary goes beyond just showing clips and offering a glossy overview of popular television programs. It gets to the heart of its subject by speaking not only with those who have portrayed iconic characters and made them household names but also with those responsible for writing and producing these shows.
The episodes focus on the basic ideals on which many TV shows are based, and delves into each in an entertaining and informative way. Independent Women, the premiere episode, illustrates how the role of women has changed both on TV and in society over the years. Who better to aid viewers in this exploration than actors like Candice Bergen, Mary Tyler Moore (who starred in both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, a decade apart), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos), and Roseanne Barr (Roseanne)? Carl Reiner and James L. Brooks, the legendary creators of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, respectively, are interviewed along with many others in their field.
The second episode, Man of the House, "showcases the evolution of men from the kings of their castles in classic family sitcoms to more intricate, conflicted figures in modern shows.” Among those we hear from are Norman Lear and Rob Reiner, creator and co-star of All In the Family, Ron Howard, who began his showbiz career as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. Also featured are more modern purveyors of the form like Steve Levitan and Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family, and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan.
Episode three focuses on The Misfit: those who do not fit the norm. These characters buck against what society considers acceptable and basically travel their own path, no matter what the consequences or how others might view them. John Astin’s Gomez Addams from The Addams Family certainly belongs in this group. Add to the list Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, who portrays a skewed version of himself, and The Office’s Rainn Wilson, who portrays the sublimely offbeat Dwight Schrute.
The final episode is devoted to The Crusaders, heroes viewers love to root for even though they might not always represent the true ideal of what a hero is supposed to be. Of course the creators of 24 discuss the exploits of world savior Jack Bauer. Then there is a bit of a gray area as we hear from Michael C. Hall, who plays the charming serial killer Dexter Morgan on Dexter. Characters like Hawkeye Pierce (M*A*S*H) and Gregory House (House) who are on the side of good but like nothing better than to rebel against all that is politically correct are also discussed in this portion of the documentary.
For students of television as well as those interested in how TV and society have changed over the decades, America In Primetime is essential viewing.
The four-part series premieres Sundays, October 30 through November 20, 8:00 ET on PBS.