You would think that Labor Day is one day we can do without TV. There are no big parades or fireworks shows to watch, no football games, no traditional movies or such. Just cookouts and backyard celebrations, beaches and oceans, a time to be outside for a last lingering look back at summer and an anticipation of the fall ahead.
But, if you're feeling a bit worn out after a day wrestling with the barbecue or fighting the traffic back from the shore, PBS is providing a perfect way to end the day, a celebration of the holiday, a nice 90 minutes that amounts to a video tribute of this day set aside to honor working people.
"The Labor Day Show," which Maryland Public Broadcasting, channels 22 and 67, will run twice Monday night, at 8 o'clock and again at 10:30, ranges from the totally frivolous to the seriously insightful to the straightforwardly instructional.
Its center is a diner in New Jersey where actress Margaret Smith portrays a waitress who has the same love/hate relationship with her job that most Americans do. From there it branches out to a Ford plant in Georgia where you see an assembly-line worker putting on a few of the 1,000 wheels and tires he attaches to Tauruses every day, to a dramatic reading of a serious or humorous meditation on labor or some other tradition attached to this holiday, to an examination of the deep and lasting %J relationship between men and their barbecue grills.
Labor Day was founded in 1882 as a protest by carpenter Peter McGuire, a demonstration against the conditions that working Americans faced. He chose the first Monday of September with those workers in mind, giving them another holiday in the long stretch between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.
The nascent trade union movement seized upon the day to march its loyal members in New York, but it was not long before the politicians lined up behind Labor Day, turning the potentially dangerous protest into a benign seasonal celebration.
"The Labor Day Show" looks at the various ways it is celebrated now, from colorful parades in New York's Caribbean neighborhoods to a bridge walk in Michigan. It shows how Labor Day has become part of the fabric of the society. Spike Lee is most eloquent as he talks of that universal childhood angst that always arose with the end of those long, hot days of summer.
And "The Labor Day Show" seeks out laborers, looking for that special relationship that Americans have with what they do. It's what we always ask of one another -- "What do you do?" -- because that, and not who your family is or where you were born or what class you are a member of, is what is supposed to be important about us.
As you hear from that Ford assembly-line worker and a pair of elderly twin women who run a farm in New Jersey, and a printer who keeps alive a dying craft, and a teacher of Hispanic children in Texas, you realize how far we moved away from celebrating labor in the last decade, how this essential American trait was almost lost in the frenzy to honor making money without working, as junk bond sellers and deal makers and lottery winners and overnight celebrities and their ilk became our role models.
This Labor Day falls at a time of high unemployment as our country struggles to find its place in a tumultuous global economy, as another country, our former enemy halfway around the globe, tries to find a new meaning for labor in its economy. "The Labor Day Show" provides an entertaining way to meditate on such issues Monday night before you have to go back to work on Tuesday.
NBC News plans a full-court press on urban issues next week as all of its programs, starting with "Sunday Today" and "Meet the Press" on Sunday morning, continuing with "Expose" and "Real Life with Jane Pauley" that night, and then with its Nightly News and "Today" shows throughout the week, ending with the Sept. 8 "Sunday Today," will contain special reports and segments on American cities.
The network provided a tape of five of its stories -- Tom Brokaw interviewing a matter-of-fact killer who sees violence as a part of his life with no more significance than you might attach to catching a bus; an interview by "Sunday Today's" Garrick Utley with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a specialist in urban affairs; Maria Shriver reporting on gang crimes for "Real Life;" Bob Herbert on an amazing singing group made up of New York children who have lost family members in murders; "Today's" Mike Jensen on a private-sector attempt to deal with the homeless.
All seem like good and earnest jobs, worthy of attention. But you can't help but thinking that a few years ago, a network news division would have put such an effort into an important documentary on this issue. Now, with every possible dollar squeezed out of every minute of air time, such documentaries are becoming fewer and farther between. So NBC News has to use the time it already has for such a shotgun approach.