Pbs Puts The Family Under A Magnifying Glass

PASADENA - All happy TV families are alike. Only PBS families are not - which, as Tolstoy knew, makes them more interesting to watch.

This fall, public television will explore the blood ties that bind in a variety of works. From the touching struggle of a Nebraska farm couple to the agony of "King Lear" to the unexpected connections between two American clans, one black and one white, PBS is in the family way.

For viewers, such intimacy may be a welcome change from the millenniallyminded fare elsewhere on TV. With the exception of "The U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848)," a documentary showing Sept. 13 and 14, most of PBS' early-fall productions have a deeply personal focus.

A difficult truth

The first of these looks to be fascinating. "Family Name," a "P.O.V." film airing Sept. 15, tackles the touchy subject of connections between Americans who owned slaves and Americans who were slaves.

Filmmaker Macky Alston grew up in North Carolina and says he never thought about the fact that many of his black classmates shared his last name. Years after moving away, he investigated and learned an ancestor had been one of the region's biggest slave owners.

The resulting exploration, incorporated in "Family Name," wasn't easy. Many black and white Alstons didn't want to be reminded of their forced historic bonds.

Alston told critics, "My grandmother, you literally see her running away as I say, `Did we own slaves? Did we own slaves?' "

Eventually, he discovered the black Alstons may be kin.

Farm-family drama

In these lush times, it's easy to forget some American families still confront penury and humiliation on a daily basis. What's riveting about "The Farmer's Wife," airing Sept. 21-23, is how quickly the emotional distance between viewer and subject vanishes.

A Frontline/ITVS production, "The Farmer's Wife" treads the same ground broken 25 years ago by that landmark documentary, "An American Family." Thanks to technical sophistication and subtle interviewing, we become virtual witnesses as two young people, Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter, try to keep their farm and marriage together.

Three chapters chart a year in the Buschkoetters' lives. Part 1, filmed in spring 1995, shows the couple and their three daughters about to lose their farm. Part 2 sees them in fall of that year, when the power balance between husband and wife is shifting as finances force their roles to change.

And in the concluding episode, disaster nears before a surprising resolution.

Braving the Bard

If "The Farmer's Wife" is a harrowing tale of familial ups and downs, no less can be said of "Masterpiece Theatre's `King Lear,' " debuting Oct. 11 with Sir Ian Holm ("The Sweet Hereafter," "The Madness of King George").

Remember when your parents bribed you to visit at Christmas? "Lear" is perhaps the ultimate tangling of love and money as the title character divides his kingdom among three daughters on the basis of their declared affection for him.

Warning: Sir Ian briefly strips to the skin per Shakespeare's stage directions. "Every inch a king," indeed.

Princely production

Some people think Lear's family is only first runner-up in the category of dysfunctional British royals. Nevertheless, the TV producer formerly known as Prince Edward seemed quite normal at the press presentation for "Crown & Country."

Edward Windsor (his preferred professional name) is a history buff and "Crown & Country" follows suit. Airing in six episodes scattered from Sept. 27 to Dec. 27, the series visits some of England's most prominent castles and keeps. The emphasis is on legends, politics and culture - architecture presumably having been cornered by big brother Charles.

But wait, there's more

PBS also presented several projects for mid- to late fall. Briefly, the documentaries include "Africans in America" (Oct. 19-22), "The American Experience's 1900" (Nov. 18) and Robert X. Cringely's "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of The Internet" (Nov. 25).

And KCTS-TV's "Chihuly Over Venice" (Nov. 9) will inaugurate a special digital week at PBS as the network's first-ever high-definition TV broadcast.

Among future biographies are "American Masters' Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note" (Oct. 28) and Ken Burns' "Frank Lloyd Wright" (Nov. 10-11). The latter profiles Wright as a genius - but unfortunately, the kind of family man Tolstoy would have understood.

Kay McFadden can be reached at 206-382-8888 or at kmcfadden@seattletimes.com