Breakthrough television doesn't happen every day. While various TV execs label graphic violence, rough language, and explicit sexual content "pushing the envelope," someone out there really is experimenting with the form, enlarging the borders of human understanding and making something heart-rending and heartening at the same time.
Jennifer Fox's stunning 10-part study of a middle-class family, An American Love Story (PBS, Sunday, Sept. 12 to Thursday, Sept. 16, check local listings) is what's truly bold this season.
The series follows the lives of an interracial couple and their two children through seven years. Ms. Fox took 1,000 hours of videotape to film it, staying with the family much of the time. She weaves together the tale through eyewitness interviews and the family's personal reflections in a masterly pattern revealing psychological depth.
But something deeper comes through - a sense of meaning in daily life, of decency and courage in adversity, and individual strength of character. The Wilson-Sims family lets us see more of themselves and their frailties than most of us would want our friends to know, let alone America at large.
And though sometimes viewers may feel perilously close to voyeurism, the insights gained drive them to consider their own lives, social attitudes, self-deceptions, and blindness to the suffering and struggles of others. Racism lives on in America and is more complex than ever.
Because there is so much more to this film and this family than their flaws - a wonderful warmth and intimacy among the members and a persistently searching and creative approach to their problems - viewers see how and why they forgive each other their trespasses.
In this way, the film goes beyond "An American Family" (1973), the first TV experiment with reality TV (the filmmakers let the family "live" in front of the camera, cinema-verit style).
In that documentary, the Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., disintegrated before our eyes. The camera changed them; it showed them their lives as a series of superficial behaviors. It was a frightening experiment.
"An American Love Story" is familial love overcoming difficulties. But none of it is easy. The couple remember how badly they were treated when they first started dating, and how Bill Sims was arrested repeatedly for dating a white girl in Marion, Ohio. Karen Wilson was ostracized by her high school classmates for dating an African-American. The story unfolds slowly, going back and forth in time to reveal layers of experience.
Their oldest daughter, Cicily, attends Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. She finds the black students somewhat intolerant of her because her mother is white. The white students are more accepting. But later, Cicily will spend a semester in Nigeria and will start to rethink her place in the world.
Cicily graduates and enters the real world. Her little sister, Chaney, becomes a teenager; Karen and Bill examine their lives, help each other through bleak times, and attend their high school reunion. We meet relatives and friends and hear about the complexities of their lives. And all of the above just scratches the surface.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this complex, sometimes repetitive, but ultimately fascinating TV film is that it is not about celebrities. It's about ordinary people living under the strain of racial prejudice. Bill and Karen have common human faults, but they are lovable, smart, kind, and profound. And their story is riveting.
And then there's a highly entertaining look at the birth of mass culture through that purveyor of fun-filled leisure, P.T. Barnum, showman extraordinaire. Beau Bridges stars (A&E, Sept 12-13, 8-10 p.m.) as the man who brought us the raincheck, the indoor-all-day museum as amusement parlor, the three-ring circus, and Madison Square Garden.
"P.T. Barnum" is as much about the rise of show business as it is a biography of Barnum, who made popular culture respectable in a way no one had ever done before. He did it by listening to what people wanted and then giving it to them.
"Barnum" is familiar in a way - not in the particulars of his colorful life, but in the American quality of his success story.
Then, too, Barnum's story seems like a forerunner of the rise of Hollywood. Unfortunately, unlike Sims and Wilson in "An American Love Story," Phineas Taylor Barnum is portrayed without a single flaw.
Though it's neither accurate biography nor reality, "Barnum" is a rather sweet, well-written, entertaining family picture - with lions, and tigers, and bears, oh, my....
*For more information on 'An American Love Story,' visit www.pbs.org/lovestories
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society