PBS at TCA, Day 2: The power (and vanity) of celebrity

Meg Ryan visited Cambodia to draw attention to human trafficking in "Half the Sky."

Nostalgia kicked off the second day of the Television Critics Press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Sunday, when PBS presented a breakfast panel for “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” the first television series from The Fred Rogers Company since the beloved children’s show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”

Daniel Tiger is the sweater-wearing 4-year-old son of Daniel Stripe Tiger, Fred Rogers’ first puppet from the original series. In the new animated series, the residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe are all grown up with kids of their own, who learn lessons on developmental issues (think: separation anxiety, disappointment and bedtime routines).

“This is designed to be your first television experience as a very young child. It carries the legacy of Fred Rogers in so many ways, but it’s not necessary to enjoy this to know anything about Fred and his Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” said executive producer Kevin Morrison.

At the same time, parents who grew up calling Mr. Rogers their neighbor will be happy to know “there’s little nods of love throughout the episodes,” explains executive producer Angela Santomero. “If you are a big fan of Fred like I was, you’ll see his little red sweaters. You’ll see the little traffic light. There’s a lot of love in there that kind of goes back to the nostalgia,” she says, “but as Kevin said, you know, it also works for today’s kids.”

“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” will premiere on Sept. 3.

A very different kind of look back was the focus of the panel for Ken Burns’s latest documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” about the disastrous dust storms that hit the American plains in the 1930s. Told mostly through the first-person accounts of survivors, the film premieres over two nights, Nov. 18 and 19.

Why it’s a timely event in American history to examine now, Burns said, is because “this is a cautionary tale … a story of our complex and often fraught relationship with the land. This is the story of the greatest manmade ecological disaster in American history, a 10-year apocalypse punctuated by hundreds of terrifying black blizzards that killed not only farmers’ crops and cattle, but their children too.”

Many survivors are now at the end of their lives; some featured in the film have since passed away. “The Dust Bowl” is Burns’s tribute to them. “They were children and teenagers then, their searing memories as raw and direct as if this had all happened yesterday,” he said. “What they were witnessing is unparalleled in American history, and yet their perspective is resolutely personal and intimate. It was an epic of human pain and suffering, but it is also the story of heroic perseverance.”

Inspiring tales of human resolution also set the stage for “Half the Sky,” the documentary based on the bestselling book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn about oppression of women and girls. Also on the panel were actresses Meg Ryan, Diane Lane and America Ferrera, who traveled with the journalists to help tell the stories of those around the world fighting for women’s rights.

Maro Chermayeff, executive producer and director of “Half the Sky,” said celebrities were brought into the project to “help the audience find a way in” to the upsetting stories of trafficking and mutilation. “If you if you give people a chance and you find some new ways for them to come to some of the subject matter, they will come and they’ll respond,” she said.

Ryan said while the spotlight is shining on a celebrity, “you can just saddle up next to something smart and important and that will get some attention.”

No matter what gets viewers to tune in, it’s important this documentary, premiering Oct. 1 and 2 as part of “Independent Lens,” is seen.

Speaking of celebrity: Star-making legend David Geffen sat on a panel for the “American Masters” film documenting his career in music and film, “Inventing David Geffen.” He had been flown in from Sardinia specifically for the event, and seemed in a bit of a hurry to get back — his answers to critics’ questions were short and not very quotable. Not until he was asked about the Carly Simon song “You’re So Vain,” that is, and how he had been fingered as the subject of the tune.
“No, no. That’s simply not true,” he insisted. “Not to say I’m not vain, but I’m not her vain.”

“Inventing David Geffen” will air Nov. 20.

For full coverage from the Television Critics Association press tour, follow Amber on Twitter: @amberatmetro.


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