The third season premiere of Pioneers of Television on PBS last night focused on pioneering female comedians like Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Betty White and Mary Tyler Moore. Once I got past the fact that Ryan Seacrest was narrating a serious documentary, it was an enjoyable hour with some good interviews and good clips. There didn’t seem to be any sort of structure to the episode, though. Instead, it jumped around bizarrely from Betty White in the 1940s to Marla Gibbs in the 1970s and then back to the 1950s for Carol Burnett.
Perhaps because Lucille Ball is not longer around to be interviewed, there wasn’t as much time spent on I Love Lucy as I would have thought. It was nice to be reminded that Joan Rivers was once actually funny. I do think the episode could have done a better job balancing its coverage of certain funny ladies. I would estimate that Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore, and their respective shows, took up about half the episode.
It took about 20 minutes for me to realize that all of the clips were being presented in a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio despite that all of the shows involved were originally broadcast in 4:3 standard definition. That’s unfortunate because it means chopping off some of the image so it will fit. Additionally, some of the earlier footage from The Garry Moore Show and Life with Elizabeth looked terrible almost as if it was a poor quality YouTube video.
As with past episodes of Pioneers of Television, “Funny Ladies” barely touched upon lesser known television shows. I’m surprised Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth was mentioned at all, let alone seeing several clips from it. Near the end of the episode there was a throwaway reference to The Goldbergs and to Gertrude Berg, a true pioneer of television if there ever was one.
After the episode ended there was a strange quiz that took up two minutes that could have gone to additional interviews, unless there weren’t any good interviews left. For some reason Betty White’s “luckiest broad on two feet” line was used three times during the hour. Still, despite these complaints, I did enjoy “Funny Ladies” and I look forward to the rest of Season Three, which continues next Tuesday (January 22nd) with “Primetime Soaps.”