Entertainment Talk

American Experience: 30 years of placid, pensive pauses

At 30, American Experience keeps strolling with placid, pensive pauses
(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

PBS’ American Experience began its fourth decade by recollecting an obsolete entertainment entity. The irony could not be starker.

“The Circus,” a two-part episode spread over last Tuesday and Wednesday, premiered 17 months after its subject shut down. The resultant emotional wounds in Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey devotees are still fresh. That much was clear in the interviews toward the episode’s conclusion.

But the subtle sentiments of a post-circus world were the extent of the references to the organization’s demise. In fact, its final half-century stayed out of the retrospective.

That is American Experience at its best. It preserves the mystique of the nation’s history by minimizing the overt overlap between past and present. It instills a steady mind-boggle where you almost cannot believe you and the images share a common country, or more.

No one needs to pretend those links do not exist. We as viewers are merely impelled to think critically and complete the connections ourselves.

Since the show launched 30 years ago this month, that paradox of finished chapters and timeless motifs has been its essence. American Experience is all about the events and institutions that are all but sure to re-manifest themselves. Some will do so in unrecognizable forms to the untrained eye, others in a blatant reprise.

The series began with “The Great San Francisco Earthquake” on Oct. 4, 1988. It had been a full lifetime since the April 1906 catastrophe in question. In the interim, nothing quite like it had happened anywhere in America.

Eerily, the next major quake to affect the Bay Area occurred one year and 13 days later. The Loma Prieta earthquake of Oct. 17, 1989, remains the region’s closest in recorded magnitude to its 1906 predecessor. In terms of devastation, the PBS-profiled tragedy remains a measuring pole for U.S. disasters, including for when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005.

Events happen, and eventually we move on, except for when history comes back in a new outfit. Or when we prefer not to move all the way on. Sometimes we are just too concerned, intrigued or nostalgic.

The latter is naturally the case for the last living holdovers from the golden years of America’s definitive circus. Ditto the organization’s keepers from its 2017 farewell tour. And as their expert input on their episode reaffirmed, those who lost or lacked interest in the circus still ought to learn from its narrative.

This is how American Experience builds its persona as a motion-picture social-studies textbook. Although absorbed in a singular subject, a given episode cannot help planting analogies in the viewer’s head. Someone’s experience or observation in the present or not-too-distant history inevitably compares to an otherwise unrelated event from when color was not commonplace.

In “The Circus,” we learned the literal roots of the facetious platitude about bolting and joining that very show. People did when they were desperate enough, and when the soon-to-merge Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey enterprises were the ticket. Those shows packed almost any imaginable inlet to find and dispense one’s talents for glory when hardly anyone else did.

Not anymore. Those options have proliferated and gone their separate ways. Today’s Americans with a substandard quality of life and an untapped gift will pursue professional sports or reality competition.

In “The Circus,” the expert guests explained how the purpose of clowns skyrocketed during the Great Depression. They were the key to cathartic laughter at people’s shared misfortune. Maybe more crucially, that laughter was payback for the privileged people ostensibly responsible for common hardship.

The Daily Show and countless other late-night TV programs have long since taken that torch. Those sociopolitical humorists also tend to join entertainment journalists in scrutizing celebrity power couples. In the former days, as the documentary highlights, that focus was on the likes of Lillian Lietzel and Alfredo Codona.

Lietzel was also an early picture of female empowerment, decades before Rosie the Riveter (who American Experience profiled in the fifth episode of its first season). As “The Circus” recounts, Katie Sandwina preceded Lietzel in that role. Billed a strongwoman, her appeal was a combination of the feats she achieved through her muscles and the beauty therein.

How do any NWHL fans watch that segment and not readily think of Hilary Knight? Moreover, how have these literal and figurative poster children for glamorized women’s empowerment stayed in an often Sisyphean-looking struggle? It has been a century and counting.

Of course, for all of its progressive and freeing qualities, the circus at its peak also had its magnets for controversy. The ever-evenhanded American Experience highlights that through the exploitation of foreign cultures, marginalized communities and imported animals. With the latter, the bittersweet 19th-century story of Jumbo the Elephant inevitably evokes the sometimes tragic 21st-century unpleasantness over Shamu the orca.

As morbid as it is, some people admit to watching perilous entertainment because of the peril. That attitude lives among NASCAR, NFL and stunt-show spectators who scorn the suggestion of safety upgrades.

The displaced animals certainly contributed to that appeal in the circus. Their ancestors had done the same in ancient Rome’s golden age of gladiator shows. But such carry-over customs were part of a common thread in shaping the United States.

As it happened, while a Classical-inspired democracy and its architecture took shape on American soil after the Revolutionary War, so did the precursors to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. In its trademark thoroughness, “The Circus” episode of American Experience leads off by detailing those origins.

And not surprisingly, the timeless adage “American Dream” is tossed around. In particular, the phrase applies to the Ringlings, who were the last living namesakes of the definitive circus conglomerate.

They are all long gone, and now so is their co-creation. But the soils of ideas and desires they tilled are not going anywhere. Neither should American Experience.

Entertainment visionaries keep navigating their paths to pleasure and prosperity. Communities keep bracing themselves for whatever natural threats their landscapes are synonymous with. Presidencies, elected chambers and lower-ranking governments keep cycling, often with the same debates and sometimes the same lingo from prior campaigns.

That is why PBS’ comprehensive and succinctly and aptly titled documentary anthology has its place as a late-evening historical program. It has a timeless right to coexist with the likes of Comedy Central’s five-year-old Drunk History.

The latter is a harmlessly fun, small-serving satirical nightcap of a take on noteworthy events. The former is a full mug of wholesome, educational warm milk. It goes down slow and easy, caps off your day and sends you to rest up for the next.

Al Daniel

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