10 Great Episodes of the PBS American Experience, Thanks to Viewers Like Me

If you’ll pardon my momentary departure from discussing goofy cult movies and obscure foreign films for a moment, I’d like to discuss something very near and dear to my heart– the PBS American Experience series. It appeals to my inner history geek. It made David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin rock stars, insofar as historians can be rock stars. And it’s as entertaining as it is educational. Here are ten great episodes- my ten favorite episodes- of the PBS American Experience. The first thing I think about any time the show is mentioned is the phenomenal orchestral intro that plays while you’re blitzed by images of American triumph and tragedy and triumph again. Let’s kick this thing off right:

RFK
I’m not sure I’ve ever been moved by a documentary the way I was by the American Experience’s treatment of RFK. There are few political figures whose histories are ripe for drama the way that Bobby Kennedy’s life was. Combine the reality of the events with PBS’ panache for breathing life into history and you wind up with an episode that, like Kennedy’s life, was inspirational; eloquent; and ended too soon.

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Coney Island
Nothing captured imaginations in Coney Island in the early 20th century quite like the giant, creepy, smiling face that adorned the Steeplechase. And, presented in the American Experience episode, it captured my imagination as well. Calliope music, Al Lewis (a.k.a. Grandpa Munster) interviews, real footage of the celebrated young history of Coney Island, and some beautiful images of the now silent area shrouded in fog mesh together to give you a glimpse of something that’s eerie and uniquely American.

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LBJ
Johnson’s presidency served as the zenith of FDR’s New Deal programs. Had the Great Society programs been the crux of his presidency, they would have served as his legacy. But the man was obsessed, paranoid, and driven insane by Vietnam. It was his downfall. Johnson was a fascinating man and an even more fascinating enigma as president. The PBS documentary portrays these ideas well, doing Johnson the justice of acknowledging his great achievements while simultaneously acknowledging the reality of his colossal failure.

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Eyes on the Prize
The American Civil Rights Movement was a historical saga that deserves more than lip service. When approaching an undertaking such as this, it requires that the makers be stunningly thorough. At 14 hours long and thanks to some incredible source material, I’d say that the series’ creator, Henry Hampton, succeeded.

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The Rockefellers
It’s impossible to watch this episode without thinking of two things- the Kennedy family, and P.T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood. Prior to seeing this American Experience, I’d never realized just how much of an integral part of American history the Rockefellers had been.

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Influenza 1918
This episode illustrates first the failure and then the triumph of science and medicine. Some of the tales and images that came out of the epidemic were downright horrifying.

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Roberto Clemente
If you’re a baseball fan, there are myriad reasons to watch this particular episode. You get to see actual footage of Clemente playing. His arm from rightfield was a thing of beauty, a scout’s dream, one of those things that makes your eyes pop out. Far more importantly, the man was an incredible inspiration to the Latino community. Odds are good that you’ll know how the episode is going to end- with Clemente dying while bringing humanitarian aid to Latin America- but it won’t leave you any less moved when the episode reaches that point.

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The Great San Francisco Earthquake
This is the one that started it all, the very first edition of the PBS American Experience. What stands out most was the politicking and the complete failure of government to plan for the disaster that developed. And, like the Influenza piece, seeing imagery of such a disaster is disturbing.

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The Lobotomist focuses on Dr. Walter Freeman, a sort of grizzly Johnny Appleseed who popularized the lobotomy, and performed them long after they came to be viewed as barbaric. It’s one of the more disturbing pieces from the American Experience that you’ll ever find. You’ll certainly never look at an ice pick the same way again.

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Truman
Be thankful that Truman and LBJ are the only presidential documentaries I’m covering here. It would’ve been very easy for me to mention the Carter, Nixon, and FDR episodes as well. The Truman edition stands out for me for a handful of reasons. First and foremost, I’m a Missouri resident and I’ve got to represent the home state. Additionally, Truman’s presidency was such a fulcrum in 20th Century American history. His presidency is seemingly so benign in retrospect, but the reality is that he elicited a wide range of emotion from the populace at the time. And it uses David McCullough’s literary monument to the man as source material. In the case of the other episodes about the presidents, I found myself learning more about information that was already somewhat cursory for me. In Truman, I learned brand new information.

All images copyright PBS


11 Comments

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11 responses to “10 Great Episodes of the PBS American Experience, Thanks to Viewers Like Me

  1. That Coney Island one was cool. I remember getting sucked into that a while back. I need to see that one about lobotomies, particularly since I’m considering getting one.

  2. rtm

    Oh how wonderful! So this is going on right now? Man, I need to watch more tv 😀 As someone who didn’t grow up in the States, this would be a great history lesson for me as well as entertainment. We weren’t taught US history at all, pretty much just propaganda stuff from our dictatorial president 😦 Anyway, I’ve always been curious about Coney Island. I’ve always wanted to see that place, and when I was in NYC over the holiday, I saw the Subway sign to Coney Island and I wish I had more time to visit there.

    • I’ve never been to Coney Island, and I never thought twice about going… until I watched that episode. Here’s a link to the PBS American Experience homepage, Ruth:

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/

      I believe right now (this week), they’re doing episodes about Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. The episodes that I mentioned are all available through Netflix (and maybe even Instant Watch? but I’m not sure). The president episodes- I’ll warn you- are VERY long. I say this because I’m not sure everyone can handle 3 hours of Jimmy Carter.

      It’s propaganda… for how great public television is. I feel like a nerd saying it, but it’s so true.

  3. PrairieGirl

    LOVE American Experience. Seems like I’ve been watching it forever. Not every episode appeals to me, but always gets my attention if I’m channel surfing, or have “bookmarked” an episode I simply don’t want to miss. A wonderfully delightful way to be entertained and educated at the same time.

    • “entertained and educated” is such a great way of saying it. By the way, there’s now a free PBS iPhone app that lets you schedule reminders. It’s easily the best app I have.

  4. Pingback: Tricky List: Dick Nixon Goes to the Movies |

  5. John Neumann

    As a student of the sciences I found The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer to be my favourite (I’m Australian, hence Aluminium and Colour) – I felt it gave a really deep insight into his personallity and how scientists need to look at the consequences of their works and not just the beauty of the science that they’re able to do.

  6. Justin

    I agree with you that the Robert F. Kennedy episode was the best episode of PBS American Experience.

    While my political views cannot be characterized as overly liberal or conservative, I found it particularly inspiring by the way that RFK communicated – so authentically, empathetically, and personally (e.g. when Bobby Kennedy went into the Hunter’s Point housing projects with people living there.)

    “Why can’t we have a President like that?” one of my friends said. “He actually means what he says rather than just giving lip service to it. Why can’t we have a leader like that?”

    Just like his brother JFK – maybe even more so – RFK genuinely wanted to improve ordinary peoples’ lives… He lived a tremendous life, through some of the most intense years of modern US history (this side of now,) and – what an episode of American Experience.

  7. Mike

    George H W Bush episode was good also. Get past the bias of today.

  8. Ada Tarade

    I have watched over 30 American Experiences episodes so far. The episode that I enjoyed the most is the one on James Garfield,” one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president, and his assassination by a deluded madman named Charles Guiteau”.

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