Television Reviews : For History Buffs, ‘American Experience’ Is a Must-See

Though it will be made up of no less than 16 hourlong films shown weekly over the next few months, PBS’ “The American Experience” doesn’t cover the whole American experience, of course--nor does it claim to. Instead, by focusing on figures and events both big and small, the producers of this ambitious new series hope to give a sense of the incredible diversity of American life and history.

More subtly but also importantly, “The American Experience"--a co-production of WGBH/Boston, WNET/New York and KCET/Los Angeles--creates a showcase for the work of several documentary film makers, some outstanding.

It might seem that “The Great San Francisco Earthquake” (tonight at 9 on Channels 28 and 15) might not be the most auspicious place to start: After all, there is relatively little film of the city at the time of the quake (1906), which remains the most damaging in the United States.

However, by brilliantly editing what films do exist together with striking still photos, and marrying these to excellent sound effects and survivors’ remembrances, film maker Tom Weidlinger has crafted a deeply involving documentary. After watching it, you feel that you’ve really seen the impact of the tragedy (where most of the carnage was actually caused by several horrendous fires) almost as well as if there had been hundreds of movie cameras covering it.


Artful, comprehensive and clear, this film provides strong hope that “The American Experience” will prove a must-see for TV history buffs.

So does the fact that next week’s offering is Robert Stone’s Academy Award-nominated “Radio Bikini,” a scathing history of the infamous 1946 atom-bomb test at the South Pacific’s Bikini Islands.

Upcoming films include “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter” (Nov. 1), “Kennedy v. Wallace--A Crisis Up Close” (Nov. 15), “Geronimo and the Apache Resistance” (Nov. 22) and “That Rhythm, Those Blues” (Dec. 6).