Diamonds in the Rough

Posted by Michael Getler on

This awful, headache-producing election campaign is almost over. There is a saying among TV reviewers and critics that they watch so you don’t have to. But there is no way that citizens could avoid the rancor, personal bitterness and national divisiveness of this year-long slog.

The news media generally have come in for a fair amount of criticism—unfairly in many cases, in my view—during this period, which I’ll get back to at another time. PBS, also in my view, has provided routinely steady, informative coverage—mercifully civilized in tone and substance—in its major public affairs programs; most importantly the nightly PBS NewsHour, and also Washington Week and the Frontline investigative series. But PBS only gets a small fraction of the overall television news viewing audience in comparison to the major commercial networks such as NBC, CBS and ABC and the big cable networks such as CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

I’m one of those whose job requires that I watch a lot of PBS, and I also try and watch as often as I can some of the other networks just to see how they handle things.

But the purpose of this brief posting is to offer my opinion that however small the PBS footprint is when it comes to news and public affairs in the huge universe of American television, there were two PBS special presentations within the past few weeks—totally different in subject and approach—that stood out as both excellent programs and antidotal to the poison that has been flowing across all the airwaves in this election season.

My Choices

One of them is the two-hour Frontline special “The Choice” that aired on Sept. 27 and investigated the background, careers and experiences that have shaped the life and character of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Frontline has been doing this program about the presidential candidates every four years since 1988, and this year it seemed more valuable than ever. I wrote about this earlier this month so I won’t go back over it, other than to say I thought it was an excellent, informative and useful documentary of two extraordinary individuals and what formed them along the way to the presidential nomination of their respective parties.

The other is much more unconventional: a 90-minute broadcast of “Hamilton’s America,” a behind the scenes look at the extraordinary success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and its guiding genius, Lin-Manuel Miranda, that aired on Oct. 21 as part of PBS’s ongoing Great Performances series and the 2016 PBS Arts Festival.

A Great Performance

This program—about Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Burr and the cast of characters surrounding the Founding Fathers—is entertaining, brilliant in concept and execution, and relevant in that it reminds us of so many things that bind us together as Americans, that have torn us apart at times, and of leaders whose vision produced a unique country and democracy that still works yet were flawed in ways that human beings are vulnerable to and that we all can recognize.

It reminds us that Alexander Hamilton came to this country before it was a country, that he was born out of wedlock and came as an orphan and an immigrant from the West Indies, and that we all benefitted from that immigration. Its superb cast is mostly African-American and Latino playing the roles of our white founders and their associates. Its dialogue and music are mostly hip-hop and rap, not typical Broadway.

There are interviews along the way with President Obama, with President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, with Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Elizabeth Warren—imagine that—with former Treasury Secretaries Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner. Together, they remind us symbolically of bi-partisanship, of differing views of a surviving economic model, of a common history and of civil discourse.

Mostly, "Hamilton's America" is a wonderful, uplifting break from today's headlines yet manages to remind us, without trying to, of several very newsworthy, present-day strains and strengths in our diverse, raucous, evolving country.

The program was produced by RadicalMedia in conjunction with Thirteen Productions for PBS member station WNET in New York. Here’s the video, which I'm told will only be available for the next few weeks. It’s definitely worth watching if you missed it whether or not you’ve seen the Broadway show or read Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow's superb book upon which the show is based.

Posted on Oct. 25, 2016 at 12:03 p.m.

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