Today is the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day. It’s a national holiday in which we Americans celebrate Will Smith blowing up aliens. Also, we celebrate our declaration of independence from Great Britain. There are bound to be loads of odes to John Wayne movies, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) bumping around on the internet this week. I’d rather talk about something else- the PBS American Experience series.
If you really want to learn about American history, there’s no better place to start than with PBS’ American Experience. The variety and detail is stunning. They offer more than three hours about Jimmy Carter- JIMMY CARTER, for crying out loud- as well as many other president-themed episodes. There are multiple episodes about various American musicians, soldiers, Wild West outlaws, civil rights heroes for a slew of minorities, cities, environmental issues, culture and commerce, pop culture scandals, athletes, politicians, and wars. I could continue, but I think I’ve made my point. Lest you need more proof, there’s even a PBS American Experience episode about tupperware.
What makes the PBS American Experience so worthy of praise isn’t just that it’s varied and thorough. It’s also the quality, which is top shelf. The show has won 265 awards, including 24 Emmys, multiple Oscars, 14 Peabody Awards, and even a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. When you watch an American Experience episode, you’re going to watch a transcendent documentary. Painstaking detail goes into historical accuracy, and it’s never sugarcoated. Nothing but the facts, ma’am.
This all affects me because I get far more pride as an American out of these episodes than I do from some fireworks display. Everything that I am as an American traces back in some way, no matter how minor, to the events detailed in those episodes. That applies to all Americans. The show documents the totality of American culture in a highly informative way. But it’s never, ever simply a rote mumbling of facts. Some of the most moving images I’ve ever seen have come from the various PBS American Experience episodes. The RFK episode is both mournful and inspirational. The same applies to Emmett Till’s mother bravely choosing to have an open casket for her son’s funeral so the world could see the depth of evil in The Murder of Emmett Till. The episode about the Rockefellers goes a long way towards explaining America’s bizarre infatuation with wealth. Many, many other episodes detail the harrowing stories of American hardship, overcome, that forged this country from what it has been into what it will be.
If you’re uninitiated, the series will give you a snapshot of who we Americans are, and why we are that way. The PBS American Experience is precisely that- the varied experiences of being American, expertly condensed into documentary form.