The PBS lineup is bits and pieces and some very impressive bits and pieces FALL TV PREVIEW

September 12, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Public television is having an identity crisis.

PBS is not only searching for a new president in the wake of Bruce Christensen's resignation last year. It's also searching for an identity that will take it into the 21st century as it battles cuts in funding, rising programming costs and fierce competition from cable channels, such as Bravo and Arts & Entertainment.

As a result, it's not too surprising that even PBS executives couldn't come up with a theme for their new programming this fall. It's simply a little of this and a little of that, clearly a case of scattershooting rather than planned diversity.

But, despite the lack of direction, there are a surprising number of productions and developments on Public Television this fall that are worth getting excited about.

* One thing Public Television has certainly been for the past 25 years is the home of quality kids' programming, thanks mainly to its relationship with the Children's Television Workshop and "Sesame Street."

Big Bird & Co. turn 25 this fall, and "Sesame Street" is in for the biggest overhaul in history.

Eight new muppets will be added, seven of which will be female in a conscious effort at gender balance, according to executive producer Michael Loman.

Four new live characters will join the show, too, including Ruth Buzzi, formerly of "Laugh-In."

And an entirely new street adjoining Sesame Street will be opened. The new street will be called "Around the Corner," and it will feature a day-care center.

"When 'Sesame Street' first started 25 years ago, most kids were at home watching television with their parents," says Sonia Manzano, who plays Maria on the show.

"Now, most kids are in day care. And we're able to deal with the problems those kids might be having by having the new street with a day-care center on it."

The new "Sesame Street" season begins and the new set debuts Nov. 22.

* There's a new set and new host for "Masterpiece Theatre." Columnist Russell Baker replaces Alistair Cooke, who retired last year.

Baker said his first session in front of the camera was rocky, and the preview tape bears him out.

But it looks as if he'll eventually be all right as host. And two minutes into "Selected Exits," the opening installment on Oct. 3, no one's going to remember what the host said or did.

"Selected Exits" stars Anthony Hopkins as Welsh writer Glyn Thomas in a sweet and splendid adaptation of Thomas' memoirs of his early years at Oxford and beyond.

On Nov. 7, Masterpiece serves up "Where Angels Fear to Tread" with the marquee cast of Helen Mirren, Judy Davis and Helena Bonham-Carter.

* "Mystery" has a new detective for viewers this fall, Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn. Purse-lipped and rather rigid, the unattractive Alleyn is played smarmily by Patrick Malahide.

But the show's the thing here, with the BBC's best and brightest behind the scenes, including a script by Hugh Leonard. It's produced by George Gallico, who produced the Miss Marple mysteries with Joan Hickson, probably the best TV mysteries ever done.

Attention to detail, warm lighting and an understated wit are all likely to make "Mystery" fans fall in love with productions, if not the detective. "The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries" debut Oct. 7.

* "The Great Depression" is one of the most eagerly awaited PBS documentaries in years. That's because it's the first major documentary by Henry Hampton since his remarkable "Eyes on the Prize."

Only portions of "The Great Depression" have so far been made available for preview, but they suggest the wait has been worth it.

"The Great Depression" will air on successive nights starting Oct. 25.

* In one of its savviest programming moves of the year, PBS bought rights to "I'll Fly Away" after NBC had canceled the series, and then PBS announced it would produce a movie to serve as a conclusion.

The idea for "I'll Fly Away: Then and Now" is to offer some emotional resolution to viewers who had connected deeply with the series only to see it canceled.

The film airs Oct. 11. It will start in the present day with Regina Harper, as Lilly, explaining her experiences in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s to her 12-year-old grandson. Sam Waterston will return as Forrest Bedford.

The movie will be followed in subsequent weeks by reruns of the series from NBC.

* "The American Experience" returns on Nov. 10 with "Eisenhower," the latest of its presidential portraits.

* And Bill Moyers is back on Fridays starting Oct. 1 with "Bill Moyers Journal." Attorney General Janet Reno and folk singer Pete Seeger are among those featured by Moyers this fall.

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