After continuous sessions of several panels per day, the PBS portion of the Television Critics Association press tour comes as a bit of a respite. The days are less compacted, there are more breaks, and they serve tea in the afternoon after screening some new Masterpiece Theatre series.
That’s not to say PBS still can’t offer some blockbuster moments, like this morning’s panel on Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, a 10-episode, 18-hour series that debuts in September. It features interviews with many former soldiers on both sides and is scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who joined Burns onstage along with co-director Lynn Novick. The window into both Burns’ and Reznor’s creative processes was frankly fascinating. Novick became intrigued by Reznor and Ross after becoming hypnotized by their score while watching The Girl With Dragon Tattoo. She figured her project probably wouldn’t be able to get them, “but maybe someone who sounded like them.” It turned out Reznor and Ross were up for the challenge, and wrote the score while Vietnam was being worked on—instead of at the end, which is more typical— which Burns said absolutely affected the editing of the project. Unlike many Vietnam-themed films, Reznor and Ross didn’t use the music of the era, instead evoking the emotionality of the series, as it displays the devastating footage and conversations that translate what it was like to be in the Vietnam War. The series will be a must-watch when it debuts this fall. Also, Nine Inch Nails frontman Reznor mused about the unlikely detours his career has taken since his twenties, saying, “My life has gone in a way I hadn’t expected… I’m not going to be on The Voice next season.”
PBS had started the day with some announcements from its eloquent CEO and president Paula Kerger, who introduced a free, all-access, 24-7 streaming service for PBS Kids. “Believe it or not, there are many children that are up at night,” she explained. “Many are in hospitals… so we feel that it’s a great service.” Kerger also introduced many new science programs: Nova’s “Solar Eclipse,” focusing on the world’s first solar eclipse in the continental U.S. since 1979 on August 21, and the science exploration specials Beyond A Year In Space and The Farthest. When asked the perennial TCA 2017 question, how the election of Donald Trump will affect her programming, Kerger replied that it was “too early to tell,” but pointed out that public broadcasting has “periodically gone through periods where our funding has been at risk.” She was asked about her affiliates in areas that may be “science-adverse”; she replied that the situation makes the educational aspect of PBS all the more crucial:
Because we reach everyone in this country… the special series that we have brought to public television hopefully will make a real contribution to helping people understand science and natural history, the fragility of our Earth and our collective responsibility towards it.
PBS Masterpiece kicked off with, of course, a Doctor-Who-themed promo (“smaller on the outside, bigger on the inside”), as the panel focused on two new series. PBS’ Rebecca Eaton joked about the frequent questions she’s received about what Masterpiece could possibly do after Downton Abbey: “like we hadn’t been around for 45 years before that.” But she did point to that series as proof that Masterpiece could support several-episode series, and not just one-off movies and specials. In the former category are Prime Suspect: Tennison and King Charles III. Prime Suspect features Stefanie Martini bravely tackling the role Helen Mirren first made famous 25 years ago, now in a prequel set in 1973. King Charles III is an adaptation of the popular stage play, written in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, as it explores a future in which Queen Elizabeth has died and Charles has ascended to the throne.
Other upcoming PBS series include an American Masters special on writer Maya Angelou, which kicked off the day; another American Masters on the tragically short but resonant life of country-music legend Patsy Cline; Frontline: American Patriot, which explores the land battle between a Western family and the national government; and a special on Africa’s Greatest Civilizations. On the docket for tomorrow: American Masters sessions on chef Jacques Pépin and food critic James Beard; Spy In The World, which uses spy cameras to capture footage of animals in their natural habitats; and “Troubled Waters,” a Nova special on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.