The Universal Notebook: PBS, the good, the bad, and the British

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Public Broadcasting Service airs some of the best shows on television. It also airs some of the worst.

This winter my lovely wife Carolyn and I enjoyed many quiescently frozen Sunday evenings watching the PBS series “Around the World in 80 Days,” “All Creatures Great and Small,” and “Vienna Blood.”

Edgar Allen BeemWhat all of these shows have in common is that they are British and they all seem to be done for the year.

Our PBS Sunday evening entertainment came to an abrupt halt a few weeks ago with the season finales of our favorite shows. We had hoped they might be replaced with something equally entertaining, but, alas, it was as though PBS had been hijacked by an AARP infomercial.

Eternal Lawrence Welk, a farewell to Kenny Rogers, the best of Burt Bacharach, “Doo Wop to Pop Rock,” and the 25th anniversary of “Riverdance” have replaced “Masterpiece Theater.” And to make matters worse, many of the musical nostalgia shows are punctuated with fundraisers (which I mute). But then Maine is a state of the elderly, so I imagine music nostalgia is popular. (I’m 73, but not with me.)    

In apparent confirmation that PBS needs better programs, the station is now advertising something called “I Miss Downton Abbey,” a show that has the cast talking about how good the series was because PBS has nothing to replace it with.

Frankly, most of our TV time that is not news and sports is devoted to Netflix these days. We loved David Tennant, the star of “Around the World in 80 Days,” in the British detective series “Broadchurch.” Even better than that was “Hinterland,” a dark, dark whodunit set in Wales. Sometimes I watched it just for the landscapes. 

Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Bridgerton,” and “The Crown” were all every bit as good as anything that’s been on “Masterpiece.” Throw in a little Amazon Prime and it’s amazing we have time for PBS at all – but then, we are Maine Public members.

PBS boasts that it has been voted the most trusted name in news for 18 straight years, but I find that a bit misleading. First of all, PBS designed the survey. Then, too, I’m not sure what the “most trusted” designation really means. I might very well check off PBS as most trusted, but that doesn’t mean I watch it with any regularity.

If you take a look at what stations drew the largest audiences for Joe Biden’s State of the Union, for example, you’ll find Fox News first with 7.2 million viewers followed by ABC (6.3), CBS (4.86), CNN (4.83), NBC (4.71) and MSNBC (4.06). Most-trusted PBS shared scraps of the last million with the Black News Channel and three other networks I’ve never heard of. Sorry, Judy.

Lately I’ve been thinking PBS might do well to reach back into the vault for old shows when the new ones run out. Just going back to 1980 would give us two of our all-time favorite mini-series.

Robert Hughes’ “The Shock of the New” was a brilliant narration of contemporary art, all the more shocking coming from a network that thought Bob Ross, the chia-haired painter of happy little trees, was a real artist.

And then there was “Flambards,” a series about the life on a decaying English country estate, c.1909-1918. Think “Downton Abbey” without the servants.

Before there were kids and grandkids, there was “Flambards.” Just horses and “aeroplanes” and the end of innocence. Perfect PBS fodder.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.