John Paul II Thematic Biography

So what was the big news in television this past month? From a Catholic viewer's perspective, that would be the little announcement that came out of public television's annual convention in San Francisco in early June. “Frontline” — PBS's premiere news series — has produced what is billed as the most comprehensive television biography ever on Pope John Paul II.

The Sept. 28 program, “Frontline's” season premiere, is expected to air over two and a half hours, and according to a spokeswoman for the show, producers have “talked to everyone in his life.” The only holdout: the Pope himself.

There may be a reason for that. “Frontline's” approach appears to be anything but hagiography. Instead, “The Millennial Pope” — as the “Frontline” portrait is entitled — promises to take a tough look at papal doctrine, including the Pope's stance on a wide range of issues, from feminism to medical ethics.

As the spokeswoman explains, “He seems to be fighting a fight against the century in which he is living,” and “Frontline” is ultimately asking “whether he is lost or we are lost.” (Strictly speaking, this isn't “biography,” but what PBS is calling “thematic biography.”)

A controversial program? That goes without question. Review tapes will be available shortly, and we'll report more fully on this next month.

Meanwhile, another “Frontline” of note: In late November, the program will air “Apocalypse,” exploring the nature and idea of the Apocalypse over 3,000 years.

TUESDAYS July 20-Sept. 28

The Life of the Birds

PBS 8 p.m. Eastern

For reasons not yet known to man, science or TV writers, the month of July is dominated by two kinds of fare on television — nature and tasteless cable programs. We'll bypass the latter and tell you about the former, and there is, thankfully, plenty to talk about. By far the most anticipated nature series on all of television this summer is “The Life of Birds,” produced and written by the prolific Sir David Attenborough (who is, yes, brother to the actor, Richard).

“Birds” has already aired in the United Kingdom, where it was an enormous hit (actually beating a competing soccer telecast one evening). And it is easy to see why: Attenborough's style is both lively and engaging (he is a major celebrity in the United Kingdom), and he bestows on the audience an infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter. You will never look at a warbler's beak in quite the same way after watching this (a superb nut-cracking mechanism). You will never fail to marvel at a bird in flight again. Attenborough, as is his wont, unloads an enormous amount of arcana on viewers in explaining bird communication, bird feeding habits, bird migratory patterns.

The effect of these 10 hours, as such, is both enlightening and hallucinatory — mostly the latter. The reason is that the photography, for the most part, is breathtaking. Attenborough's work over the years — particularly his renowned “Life on Earth,” and “The Living Planet” — rank as some of TV's most memorable nature series. “Birds” instantly joins their ranks.


To The Moon

PBS 8–10 p.m. Eastern

One of “Nova's” biggest programs of the year is something of a departure — a detailed exploration of the first manned flight to the moon. Marking the 30th anniversary of the landing, the program is suffused with both detail and drama — the bitter arguments, for example, over whether NASA should employ a lunar landing module or whether a rocket should be sent directly to the moon's surface (the proponents for the former, of course, won). No matter how much you know about the Apollo program, this adds a spell-binding dimension — the enormous risk behind the entire enterprise.


The Living Edens, Kakadu: Australia's Ancient Wilderness

PBS 8 p.m. Eastern

“The Living Edens” series is barely 2 years old, but has already secured a place for itself in TV's pantheon of nature series. Certainly part of the reason for this is the photography, which is stunning. But there is also a certain intimacy to an “Edens” telecast — an almost miniaturized sense of place, where life takes on a highly detailed and deliberative pace. Kakadu is thus a perfect subject for the program. It lies in the remote northwestern corner of Australia's Northern Territory, where the cycle of weather is both regular and severe (more surface lightning than any place on earth) and where there are effectively two seasons — wet and dry. But life here is mostly muted — nocturnal or hidden from the sun's intensity.

The broadcast looks deeply into the hidden, and strikingly beautiful, soul of this blighted place.

SUNDAY & MONDAY July 11–12

Savage Seas

PBS 8 p.m. Eastern

Spectacular waves! Deadly ice! Killer sharks! The breathless PBS press release makes this four-hour (putative) nature series sound more like of those reality specials on Fox. And, yes, this series definitely takes its cue from its more sensational brethren. That's part of its problem: There is something numbingly familiar about all of this, as though we have stumbled on some of these stories elsewhere — shipwrecks off South Africa, shark-infested waters off Maui, terrifying tidal bores in China.

Is this a nature program or a true crime one? PBS secretly loves these sensational, and highly promotable, programs. They get plenty of viewers and convince corporate underwriters that PBS isn't perhaps just a lightly viewed marginal TV service. Still, this one seems more appropriate as a “sweeps” stunt on NBC.

MONDAY July 12

The Battle for the Titanic

PBS 10 p.m. Eastern

And on the subject of highly promotable PBS specials, we come to this — yet another televised attempt to exploit modern history's most famous wreck.

Despite its hyped presentation — the scandal over Titanic memorabilia — there's a dated feel to this special, as though we've heard it all before (and we likely have). And while we're on the subject, “Secrets of the Titanic” airs on Sunday, July 11 (8 p.m.). This one's about Robert Ballard's exploration of said ship.


The Springer Saga

So why has television largely escaped the escalating debate in Washington over violence in the wake of Littleton, Colo.? The reason is that Congress has leveled its sights on what appear to be far more egregious exemplars of violence — particularly video games.

But the one show which has not failed to escape everyone's attention is possibly the single worst show on television (a difficult call, by the way): “The Jerry Springer Show.” “Springer” has come under increased attack in Washington, and the show's producer, in response, has forced all forms of violence off the show. While it's forced “Springer” to tone down before (and then proceeded to look the other way), many believe it is serious this time.

Moreover, there is a growing expectation that the producer, Studios USA, now intends to sell the show. Would that mean the end of the show?

Some people hope so, but it's not likely: a new producer will simply let “Springer” — the highest-rated talk show in the country — take the gloves off again.

Verne Gay writes about television for Newsday.