'Pioneers of Television' review: Ladies first

Betty White enjoys a moment between scenes on

Betty White enjoys a moment between scenes on the first "Betty White Show" in 1954. (Credit: PBS)

DOCUMENTARY "Pioneers of Television"

WHEN | WHERE Four-part weekly salute starts Tuesday night at 8 on PBS/13. (Starts Jan. 20 at 9 p.m. on WLIW/21.)

REASON TO WATCH Who doesn't love Lucy? And Carol. And Mary. And, God bless her, the everlasting Betty White.


INTERACT: New fall TV series | Greatest TV characters

MORE: Best shows to binge-watch | TV Zone blog


WHAT IT'S ABOUT With sitcoms, crime dramas and other tube genres already covered, this recurrent history clipfest (2008, 2011) returns for four more slices of TV's cultural pie. First up: "Funny Ladies," which makes for a somewhat less tidy construction than, say, westerns.

Tuesday night's hour is more oral history than historical calculation, cramming in as many recollections as possible from Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore and White, who not only remains the most active but also predates her compatriots on TV -- even the late Lucille Ball's groundbreaking "I Love Lucy." Native Californian White started along with the medium in the 1940s, hosting the live local shows that dominated those low-dollar early days.

That fresh-faced immediacy extends to Burnett, whose lyrical lampoon of boring diplomat John Foster Dulles on a live variety show made her a '50s name within a week, directly leading to her sketch comedy stardom. Moore and Ball took a tougher route, arriving at icon status through diligent training and climb-the-ladder effort.

"Funny Ladies" also includes comments from pioneer comics Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, plus beneficiaries Tina Fey and Margaret Cho. It even mentions forerunner Gertrude Berg, the producer-star whose creation "The Goldbergs" transitioned to TV after 20 years as a radio hit.

MY SAY "Pioneers of Television" is all over the map this time. "Funny Ladies" lacks both linear chronology and thematic focus, and so crafts through-lines like its subjects' "dreams of stardom." But you're not watching for deep insight or great writing, right? You want fresh interviews and vintage clips, which are plenty.

Next week's installment, "Primetime Soaps," has the opposite problem, narrowed almost entirely to the 1978-93 existence of "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Knots Landing." The shows are fun to revisit: The big hair! The shoulder pads! The catfights! Larry Hagman! But "pioneers"? (Ryan Seacrest's narration eventually claims they "demonstrated viewers liked continuing story lines.")

"Pioneers of Television" continues on Ch. 13 with "Superheroes" Jan. 29 and "Miniseries" on Feb. 5.

BOTTOM LINE Great nostalgia, worthy celebration, so-so history

GRADE B

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