“American Experience: The Race Underground” (PBS, Tuesday). Fun for engineering fans and old-photo buffs, this documentary from Michael Rossi “partially adapts” Doug Most’s 2014 study, “The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway.”
The inter-city rivalry that Most’s book details does not get traction here; Rossi, directing very much in the Ken Burns history-is-personal storytelling mode, focuses on inventor and engineer Frank J. Sprague, who developed the “self-regulated” electric motor and various mechanical felicities that made efficient subterranean rail transit possible. (Earlier subways had sent coal-fired trains underground; it was not a good system.) Indeed, it’s a kind of attempt to rescue the inventor from obscurity – Thomas Edison, whose workshop Sprague quit to found his own company, later bought him out and put his own name on Sprague’s machines.
More broadly, it’s a tale of the sometimes consonant, often conflicting interests of industry, politicians and the people — many of whom had to be convinced that traveling underground did not take them, literally, farther from God and closer to the Devil. Rossi’s film engages the still-vital question of whether cities should be shaped by businessmen looking out for their own interests or government advancing and protecting the interests of its citizens.
Spoiler alert: it all worked out. Fifty million passengers rode the system in its first year and what was then the most congested city in America found a little room to breathe. And though a trip on a crowded subway car can even now feel like Hell, nobody mistakes that for the actual place anymore.
“Drive Share” (Go90, premieres Monday). Ex-"Human Giant” collaborators Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel have created a very funny sketch-comedy take on HBO’s old hidden-camera show “Taxicab Confessions,” updated for the generation that doesn’t take taxis. Though series has been made (by Complex Networks) for Verizon’s Go90 mobile platform, you do not need to be a Verizon subscriber to use the app, which is available for both Android and iOS; there is a web version, as well, at www.go90.com.)
As in “Taxicab,” everything takes place within the confines of a car in motion. Some rides begin very much in the former show’s spirit – a bacherlorette party, a couple discussing whether to have children – if ending quite differently. The show can be a little gruesome and, like much comedy nowadays, is not for the easily embarrassed, But there is also a post-apocalyptic scenario (“I’m a slave at the refinery, I do a 72-hour shift, take a three-hour break, then 72 more hours, then the weekend of course,” fare Scheer tells driver Huebel), and an episode in which the pale rider is Death, played by Scott Aukerman.
Other scenes include a man who mistakes the ride app for a dating app and another who has been stabbed on Hollywood Boulevard by a Freddie Kruger impersonator (“Bring me to the hospital where they shoot ‘Grey’s Anatomy, I want to meet McDreamy.”) Besides Scheer and Huebel, the riders and drivers also include Adam Pally, Jessica St. Clair, Jason Mantzoukas, Claudia O’Doherty, Heather Anne Campbell, Nicole Byer and Neil Casey — some of them strange, all of them real.
“Becoming Warren Buffett” (HBO, premieres Monday). Peter Kunhardts’ intimate, cheery, cheering, charming biographical documentary on the ukulele-playing Omaha billionaire reminds us that not all moguls are cut from the same cloth. We find Buffett active and alert in his late 80s, cheerleading his company’s festive stockholder meetings, driving through a McDonald’s on the way to work to pick up one of three habitual breakfasts, depending on how prosperous he’s feeling: "$3.17 is a bacon and cheese biscuit, but the market’s down this morning, so I think I’ll pass up the $3.17 and go with the $2.95.”
This apparent parsimony is only self-applied. Though Buffett was late to large-scale philanthropy, he has made up for lost time. In 2006, he determined to give away the bulk of his fortune to the less fortunate, through foundations run by Bill and Melinda Gates, his three children and in the name of his late first wife, Susan Buffett. (Though remaining married and close, the couple lived apart for many years; Susan’s friend Astrid Menks, would live with and latter marry Buffett — Christmas cards were signed by all three.) A long list of supported causes, appearing at the film’s conclusion, includes LGBTQ rights, environmental justice, nutrition education, family planning, public schools, endangered species protection, indigenous community support, vaccine delivery, global libraries, sex trafficking prevention and adolescent girls’ rights.
Energetic and focused to the point of antisocial abstraction (to the mostly affectionate despair of his family) with a talent for figures, Buffet “went into business very early,” going door to door to sell magazines, gum and Coca-Cola – a company he would later partly own and a product he continues to regularly consume. Now, as CEO of the holding company Berkshire Hathaway, he’s one of the world’s richest men; yet he lives simply and, though self-described as highly competitive, admits that above all he has been lucky -- that being born an American male meant he won “the ovarian lottery on the first day…. To think that that makes me superior to anyone else as a human being, I can’t follow that line of reasoning.”
“The Witness for the Prosecution” (Acorn TV, premieres Monday). Streaming from the Anglo-centric subscription service Acorn TV, this new BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s short story and play stars Toby Jones (“Detectorists”) as a subsistence-level London barrister defending a young man (Billy Howle) from a charge of murdering the rich woman who kept him (Kim Cattrall, putting on an accent). Complicating matters, emotionally and practically, is the accused’s wife (Andrea Riseborough), a destabilizing Soho showgirl.
Where the well-known 1957 Billy Wilder film glistened in black and white and employed the Hollywood glamour of stars Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton, this take, written by Sarah Phelps (who also recently adapted Christie’s “And Then There Were None”) and directed by Julian Jerrold (“Becoming Jane”), is more muted: all earth tones, dark, dreary – heartsick where Wilder was cerebral. One feels at every turn that this will turn out well for no one. Jones takes another step in his slow evolution from supporting player to star, but there is excellent work all around.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd