PBS

Broaden Your American Experience...With Crime!

PBS's history show kicks off its twenty-eighth (!) season with a look at the nation's most notorious.

The producers of American Experience probably won't care for the idea that their show works just as well as a video podcast of sorts -- after all, editors and directors took time to assemble visuals in a certain order and would probably prefer that I pay attention to them, versus knitting and listening to series narrator Michael Murphy inform me via VO about the Triangle fire. But I hope they'll take it as a compliment, and know that I've long had my DVRs set to catch the random reruns that air at 3:35 AM on the lesser PBS satellites in the metro area, because I love listening about Mount Rushmore, The Carter Family, or Tupperware and learning things about well-trodden subjects that I'd never known before.

American Experience turns its attention to crime stories early in Season 28, and if you avoid most true-crime programming because it's lurid, banal, luridly banal, or prone to making you wonder aloud what the hell is wrong with 1) just getting a goddamn divorce that all these couples try to off each other and/or 2) Florida, it's time to get on board with public television's take on the genre. As I mentioned, it's solidly constructed documentary fare that you can either watch, or just listen to while you craft or fix dinner. As I also mentioned, the narration is extremely well done, and the filmmakers -- experienced directors like Ric Burns, who tend to return to the show -- get good voice-over work from actors like Andre Braugher, Harris Yulin, Josh Hamilton, Courtney B. Vance, Richard Brooks, and Denis O'Hare. (James Cromwell will voice Clarence Darrow in the upcoming Leopold/Loeb episode.)

And it doesn't do the expected thing, repeat wiki-lore you've heard umpteen times before, or shy away from ugly graphics and details. The AE treatment of Jonestown was both broadly informative and lingeringly disturbing, one of those docus you admire while feeling afraid to recommend it in so many words -- but it's the best treatment of that tragedy I've yet come across. The recent "Bonnie & Clyde" episode wasn't one I particularly looked forward to, forgetting that AE knows how to freshen up tired topics, and sure enough, I learned a lot, like

  • that Bonnie was teeny, not quite five feet tall
  • that she hated that famous picture of herself with the cigar and the foot on the bumper; nobody else was supposed to see it
  • that she was married, at 15
  • that a car wreck crippled her with burns
  • that sexual assault Clyde serially suffered in prison made him fatally determined never to return
  • that Mrs. Barrow told Clyde they hadn't bought his late brother Buck -- a member of the Barrow gang -- a headstone yet because they knew they'd have to bury Clyde soon too, and couldn't afford two stones
  • the way crime and gangsters took on an aspirational glamor during the Depression, when bank robbery and kidnapping were considered, if not legitimate, then businesslike pursuits for those with few other choices -- and that the popular culture cosigned this idea with enthusiasm

From the talking-head interview with a retired sheriff named Boots Hinton to the sad photo of Clyde, post-final shootout, slumped like a perforated ragdoll in the driver's seat amidst a surging crowd, "Bonnie & Clyde" held my interest every minute. I've liked the show's take on Billy The Kid, Jim Jones, and Lee Harvey Oswald; I can't wait to see what they do with the upcoming assassinations and thrill-kills this season has in store.

For more thoughts on true crime, visit Sarah D. Bunting's true-crime review site, The Blotter, at www.the-blotter.com.
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