So, it's August: Time to turn off the TV set and head outdoors? The answer is a qualified “yes.” Qualified only because there are a few gems worth catching before the fall season gets under way in September. August, for example, brings us another “pledge” period on public television. You have to check your local listings for these, but mid-August offers a slew of mostly music-related programs, including “Lawrence Welk's Songs of Faith,” “Charlotte Church: Voice of an Angel,” “Bernadette Peters in Concert,” as well as an “American Masters” special on Tin Pan Alley.
Here are some other shows worth catching:
THURSDAYS July 29-Sept. 9
Nightline in Primetime: Brave New World ABC 10 p.m. Eastern
Last August, “Nightline” — ABC News' hugely successful late night program — aired an unusual prime-time series on crime and punishment that worked so well that it decided to give prime time another try. But this year we get something with a distinctly premillennial feel: the future of technology and mankind. The title, of course, is directly inspired by the famous line in The Tempest. “O, wonder! … How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in't.” And like Miranda, from The Tempest, ABC News is equally awed by the extraordinary potential of modern technology.
But here's the good news with “Brave New World.” It is not a mere recitation of the glories of high technology. Instead, it attempts to look deeply into the ethical and moral implications of the high-tech boom. The new world, this series proclaims, is a brave one, but is also a tricky and potentially treacherous one. Questions asked: How has our concept of time been altered by new technology, and how has that affected the way we think and behave? Or, at what point will technology begin to take over an individual human being's thinking and decision-making process?
Serious intentions aside, “Brave New World” is not always heavy sledding through the byways of Silicon Valley. Thanks to anchor and narrator Robert Krulwich, the series is often whimsical and lighthearted. Even high technology, it would appear, has a sense of humor.
WEDNESDAYS Aug. 25 & Sept. 1
On the Trail of Mark Twain with Peter Ustinov PBS 9 p.m. Eastern
The title of this program — PBS' major offering in August — is somewhat misleading. Mark Twain? Do not be fooled: this is, four square, about Sir Peter Ustinov and the actor's own particularly pungent, and off-beat, brand of humor. “On the Trail” will air on two consecutive Wednesdays, but only one hour — the second, which is provocatively if obscurely entitled “Beautiful Death” — was available for review.Yet it is quickly apparent why Ustinov, who has narrated other travelogues for PBS, was attracted to Twain. When the great American writer was a struggling stringer for a San Francisco newspaper, he had the good sense to use his publisher's money to travel to exotic and beautiful places like Hawaii and Fiji (this particular two-part series is based on Twain's best-selling 1897 memoir, Following the Equator). When Twain visited Hawaii, for example, it was a kingdom separate and apart from the mainland United States. This intrigued Ustinov, who observes that “wherever I traveled I found people obsessed with the ancestry of their lost past.” What does this have to do with Mark Twain? Who knows, but during this hour we see Ustinov taking hula lessons, interviewing a man with leprosy, and other disparate (and seemingly unconnected) activities. We see plenty of Ustinov, who is somewhat doddering, and now walks with the assistance of a cane. But Ustinov seems to be taking his cue from a famed British writer — Anthony Trollope — rather than Twain. He uses these hours to comment on the oddities of American customs and mores, yet what we end up with are the oddities of Peter Ustinov.
SATURDAY AUG. 7
The Vietnam War: A Descent into Hell Discovery Channel, 8–11 p.m. Eastern
Why has the Discovery Channel tucked this richly detailed program out of sight on a Saturday night in the midst of summer? Many viewers are perhaps wary of Vietnam documentaries; there have been a slew of them in recent months, and they have been numbing. But Discovery's take on of this conflict is substantially different. “A Descent” goes deep into modern history, to carefully examine the roots of the war, and question the assumptions that so many of us have taken for granted about the Vietnam War and its causes. In particular, it ascribes far greater responsibility to the Eisenhower administration for the United States' deepening involvement in Vietnam than it usually receives.
Still, “Descent” doesn't rely on historians, but policy makers and operatives from the 1950s, including officers from the State Department and the Office of Strategic Services. One Eisenhower aide, for example, dismissively calls the president's unalloyed belief in the domino theory “a concoction” which was unsupported by facts, he claims. There are numerous interviews with key personnel from the formative years of the war, which makes this program a worthy — and engrossing — addition to the huge canon of Vietnam documentaries.
SATURDAYS & SUNDAY Aug. 21, 22, 28
EWTN Global Showcase EWTN 8 p.m. Eastern
EWTN will present a series of programs this month celebrating the anniversary of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's election as Pope in 1978.
Just some of the highlights: The network will air the anniversary Mass that took place on Oct. 18, 1998, on Aug. 21; “Catholic Compass” will air “Pope John Paul II: A Celebration of his Life,” a biography of his life on Aug. 22; and a “Showcase” presentation entitled “Pope John Paul II: Conscience of the World,” that features footage from his 1979 trip to Mexico and 1998 visit to Cuba.
A program note observes that “the Holy Father has touched many lives all over the world including places like Africa, Europe, the United States and especially his homeland of Poland.” This airs Aug. 28.
Clouds on the Horizon
We have seen the immediate future of network television, and from a family perspective, the news is not good.
Fall, of course, means new programs on the major networks — well over 30 new shows will premier between September and December.
However, a relatively new and ominous trend looms: Many new shows feature extraordinarily harsh language as well as dramatic situations that are patently unsuitable for children. UPN, the fledgling network that is barely drawing a breath, will even air a Thursday night two-hour telecast of so-called “World Championship Wrestling” that has already drawn fire from critics. It promises to be unusually violent, and will air when millions of children are in front of the TV sets.
Why are networks “pushing the envelope” this fall more than in years past? The answer has to do, in part, with a gradually changing focus of network TV. The networks are seeking young adult viewers more than ever before, and the way to do that, they believe, is with sexual content and violence. From a network programming perspective, families are merely redundant, and that has led to a radical decline in standards.
It is still possible to find something here and there, however. You just have to look.
Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday.