PBS previewed its upcoming programming during the final two days of presentations at the Winter 2013 Television Critics Association tour, and for those of us who have been here from the beginning it was as if the best had been saved for last. That's not to say that there haven't been exciting sessions with major talent throughout the tour, but there was something about the combination of press conferences with a very funny and at times surprisingly touching Mel Brooks on Monday and an unexpectedly funny and commanding Jeremy Irons on Tuesday that somehow eclipsed much of what had come before. And as far as getting its messages across to glazed critics and ragged reporters who had been sitting though press conferences every day for two weeks it didn't hurt that PBS produced a mini-concert with five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald on Monday night, or that it closed its TCA days Tuesday night with a performance from another multiple Tony winner, Christine Ebersole.
The session with the legendary Brooks, on hand to promote the upcoming "American Masters" documentary "Mel Brooks: Make a Noise" (set to debut in May), was definitely the high point of PBS' TCA presentations, if not the entire tour itself.
"What do you want to know about?" Brooks asked the critics as he took the stage. "I'll tell you what I think is appropriate and what I think is none of your business."
Most of the questions directed to Brooks were about his movies, and most of his answers were both informative and quite funny. But at one point, when a critic asked him to talk about his late wife, Anne Bancroft, Brooks became quietly serious and declined to do so.
"It is really a little too painful and private," he said. "You know, there might be one or two things I could share with you. When we were singing 'Sweet Georgia Brown' in Polish, Anne diligently learned it in Polish. She really taught it to me. If you watch the movie, 'To Be or Not to Be,' you'll see me mouthing her lips and looking at her doing it. She was the best singer, the best dancer and maybe the best actress in the world. I was very lucky for 45 years, and it's very difficult. I have great children, and I have a good life, but it is very difficult every day to go on, I can tell you, without her."
Brooks revealed that he is working on a musical stage adaptation of his 1974 classic "Blazing Saddles," a raunchy comedy set in the Old West.
"'Blazing Saddles' is kind of en route somewhere in my head," he said. "I know that it would open with a lot of rough cowboys beating the shit out of little old ladies down the aisles of the theater."
Jeremy Irons, who was here to talk about "Shakespeare Uncovered," a six-episode series about the stories behind many of Shakespeare's plays that begins later this month, was as thoughtful and as funny as Brooks, especially when he took a few good-natured jabs at PBS' current outsize pride and joy.
"As an actor, I realize that Shakespeare is gold dust," Irons began. "Shakespeare is the best writer. He can allow you to do more with an audience than any other writer before or since. So I'm very excited about 'Shakespeare Uncovered' [and] what it can do to open up to this huge American audience this gold dust. Show them that, actually, television doesn't end with 'Downton Abbey.' If you think that's good, then watch these Shakespeare productions, and you'll see what real writing, what real stories, what real
characters are about, and …"
"But we do love 'Downton Abbey,' too," chimed in WNET Vice President of Programming Stephen Segaller, who was on stage with Irons.
"We do love 'Downton Abbey,'" Irons agreed, smiling.
"Just a footnote," Segaller added. "We love it a lot. Quite a lot."
Irons couldn't stop. "It's sort of like -- I mean, I don't know your cars well enough -- but it's like a Ford Fiesta will get you there and give you a good time … but, actually, you know … an Aston Martin, that's what you've got with Shakespeare."
A few minutes later, in responding to a question about mastering Shakespeare, Irons teased, "It's practice, practice, practice, I think, with Shakespeare. You can't sort of mutter it in a 'Downton Abbey' way." At this point, certain heads among the PBS executive ranks were starting to spin.
As the session progressed, a curious reporter asked Irons to clarify his thoughts about "Downton Abbey." The room was hushed.
"If I shot myself now, would it create enough of a diversion?" Segaller interjected, "because I'm willing to do it."
"I'm a terrible television snob," Irons laughed. "I don't watch very much television. I've never seen 'Downton Abbey.'" As the critics exploded in laughter, he added, "So I don't know what I'm talking about, basically, when it comes to that. I'm sure it's splendid."
The other highlights of the PBS tour days were a panel for "Conversation USA with Peter Sagal," a series that will explore the general ignorance Americans have about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (beginning May 7); a luncheon with Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah about their new documentary "The Central Park Five," about the black and Latino teenagers falsely accused and wrongly convicted in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case (set to debut April 16); Audra McDonald's concert and press conference for the upcoming season of "Live from Lincoln Center," for which McDonald will serve as host; a panel for the upcoming "Masterpiece" series "Mr. Selfridge" with series star Jeremy Piven, which looks to be PBS' next watercooler series (beginning March 31); a jaw-dropping performance by ukulele virtuoso and YouTube sensation Jake Shimabukuro to support the upcoming special "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings" (premiering May 10); a luncheon featuring Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas, among others, to promote the documentary "Makers: Women Who Make America" (set to debut February 26); and the return to TCA of the cast of "Call the Midwife" to discuss the second season of the acclaimed drama series, which begins March 31.
Although the PBS days at TCA are well attended, dozens of critics and reporters who descend for the cable and broadcast network portions of the tours tend to skip them, as if they aren't as vital as the rest of the programming being previewed. But PBS reaches a larger audience than many cable channels, and certain PBS programs dwarf certain broadcast efforts in the ratings, so I have to wonder what they're thinking. Why in the world wouldn't they choose to experience everything PBS has to offer?