American Shithole #46 | The Beautiful Things: PBS
By Eric Wilson
It’s raining in Vegas; I can see winds ravage the palm trees just outside my window. I reside in a quiet house today — which is rare; the dogs are unusually silent and Ari is away — and I am going to take my dead wi-fi adapter (keeping me from Sling, which in turn keeps me from CNN) as a cue to write about something I love.
Coincidentally, I might have made a breakthrough in my eternal battle with my temper. I think I broke the wi-fi adapter on the desktop moving it across the room last night, and I reacted poorly this morning when I discovered my predicament. I’ll save the details for another time, but I might have turned a corner.
I hate my temper; yet I have not mastered it. If we are lucky, we learn, we grow, we become better people, etc. — but damn, some of these challenges are fucking life-long. Where’s my End Boss on my anger quest already?
I know one thing that will make me angry — watching our marmalade princess of a president fail at reading sentences on live TV. Fuck the SOTA, let’s talk about the Public Broadcasting Service.
Like many Americans my age, my introduction to PBS was with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street.
As I sat this morning pondering my temper, and reflecting on the television I watched as a child, I was struck by a rush of memories, feelings really, when I thought about PBS; everything else, not so much.
I can still remember the comfort; I can’t remember the specifics of episodes, but I recall the comfort — especially with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I caught a promo for one of the biographies of the man a week or so back; one of the snippets they used was from the time he spent with a severely disabled child, Jeff Erlanger, and he so masterfully navigated that moment at the end of their encounter. To convey to someone so young, dealing with such a difficult situation, that it is okay to feel sad and then to immediately turn that around into joy. Fucking magical. Beautiful. My chest literally swells every time I think of it.
If humanity were on trial for some reason (an unfortunate turn of events for sure) and I were asked to represent our species in some sort of intergalactic court of law (think: Picard vs. Q in Star Trek: TNG), I would introduce as evidence masterpieces of the arts for sure, great deeds, historic events — but I would open with Fred fucking Rogers.
Sesame Street didn’t need to sell me on multiculturalism, my parents are as progressive as it gets in the States, and they certainly fostered in me a sense of social democracy long before I knew what the term meant. But Sesame Street did need to reach millions of Americans unaware of the melting pot they were living in — and reach them they did.
Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia:
“A 1996 survey found that 95% of all American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were three years old. In 2008, it was estimated that 77 million Americans had watched the series as children. As of 2014, Sesame Street has won 167 Emmy Awards and 8 Grammy Awards — more than any other children's show.”
167 Emmys. Wow.
In my YA years, PBS delivered again. On Sunday nights in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, WTTW Chicago unleashed Monty Python on young American lives. (KERA Dallas has the honor of being the first station to share Python with America, back in 1974.) Regarding the development of humor, I cannot think of a more prominent driving prepubescent force than Monty Python’s Flying Circus — except perhaps the Carlin, Pryor, and Martin vinyl I somehow had at the age of ten (back in the ‘70s before the internet).
Venerable programs like Nova (1974–present) and Nature (1982–present) were also favorites among the few kids I knew that were encouraged to learn, and actually enjoyed doing so. PBS really did right by my generation.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980). Holy shit, how could I forget Cosmos? I recall (now) how it felt as a twelve-year-old to watch that show. I was confused, full of doubt; and here comes Cosmos, where the Universe is a place of wonder that stretches beyond imagination. (Vonnegut, Herbert, and Asimov had already clued me in.)
I am very, very thankful for the influence PBS had on my life.
PBS has done more good for the minds of American children in the last fifty years than any other institution I can imagine. No wonder the fucking republicans hate PBS so goddamn much (the fucking dirty shitbags).
I was thinking about this a few months ago (as it has always been my plan to honor PBS), if I were limited to only PBS broadcasting, I don’t think I would mind a great deal. The PBS NewsHour is the finest hour of news available (in my opinion), and they always follow that (at least locally) with a show I like. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. are Antiques Roadshow (1997–present), Finding Your Roots (2012–present), and Nature, respectively.
And that is about as much time as the average American has for television anyway.
If you do have the time, there is no shortage of quality programming — old and new — on PBS. Frontline (1983–present) has been around forever (and has received every major award in the business); it’s still the vanguard of investigative journalism. American Masters (1986–present), American Experience (1988–present), Masterpiece (1971–present) — it’s a long list of quality programming.
Even reruns of This Old House (1979–present) are useful as Sunday morning salve; for when you need to nurse that particularly painful hangover. Sure, there’s a bit of hammering, but seeing as you got hammered the night before, it only seems befitting.
PBS has a lot of feel-good shows actually, and not just for the kids. Nature to me is a fantastic example of feel-good television — of which I find there are three categories.
Category 1 feel-good television can improve your mood after a hard day; there are quite a few on PBS. Antiques Roadshow is a category 1 feel-good program for me.
Category 2 is rare; it’s the kind of feel-good show you can put on when there’s been a tragedy, and you and your loved ones are exhausted at the end of the day (one probably spent crying, perhaps looking at photographs of a beloved pet). I stockpile these now; they are like gold. Cosmos: A Personal Journey is a winner there, come to think of it. (Into the category 2 emergency file you go.)
Category 3 is the rarest of all — a show that makes you feel so good you can’t sully it by linking it to pain. It’s just too damn good, and you’d never wait anyway.
That’s The Great British Baking Show (2010–present).
And again, it was PBS that first introduced me to this (acutely British, it’s known as The Great British Bake Off over there) well-spring of good feelings. Every season, every episode — ambrosia-like god-food for the soul.
For fifty years, PBS has been the shining example — perhaps the only example — of what television could be; versus the advertisement-laden, thought-controlling, corporate skull-fucking monstrosity it is nearly everywhere else.
Look, I’m a statist. I’m hardwired for cooperation. I like societies. I like the things societies provide. I don’t think it would be better if society collapsed and I had to shit in the woods every day.
When I think of PBS, I think of the very best our society has to offer.
PBS: Because nobody really likes to shit in the woods.
So I skipped the State of the Union this year, and despite the storm front, it’s been a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
(Author’s note: I watched it.)
Okay, I watched it. A little — but I put it on mute. I can’t stomach his voice. What bristled me from the moment he set foot in the Capitol Building, was the fact that almost everyone else in the room knows he’s guilty of treason. Yet still they stand and smile, and clap (and chant “U.S.A.”f or fuck’s sake!).
I was heartened to see that SOC doesn’t clap for traitors (or suffer those who do), and I was moved by Stacy Abrams’ Democratic Response.
Also, by no design, I watched PBS this evening after the SOTA and DR, and was blown away by American Experience: The Greeley Expedition (2011).
For my entire life, in each decade, PBS has surprised, entertained and enlightened.