The History Channel periodically broadcasts an eccentric program called Secret Passages. It's a tour of hidden chambers of every description: The show's intrepid guides simply crawl through parlor fireplaces, descend into cellar hide-outs, and expose elaborately concealed cabinets. I like it. It's weird. It's a tribute to all those who doubt walls—the Tintin and Nancy Drew-types who tap library panels and/or shove open mahogany "bookshelves" to discover the secret world that lies beyond. Of course, the show is on the History Channel, so its chief aesthetic principle is thrift; it's made of helter-skelter clips from the historic houses' promotional videos and ruminations of wacko talking heads (many of whom wear bonnets). But for the under-10 detective set—and its many, many alumni— Secret Passages doesn't disappoint.
Down the dial at PBS, things aren't nearly so much fun. Our nation's broadcaster has always liked to lecture, but after surviving years of calls for its destruction, PBS is understandably indignant. Watching PBS against the History Channel, as I did the other night, it becomes clear that PBS is at least as absolutist as its famously right-wing rival. The network's relatively harmless "liberal" themes—that the world is a marvelous place, that the facts of history can be painful nonetheless, that science and art can save souls—these days come across as grim idées-fixes, conveyed on high-end film stock in the grand documentary format that is now as formulaic as a sitcom. It is no surprise that PBS viewers are being lured by cable networks that have co-opted its beats. The Discovery Channel has nature, Bravo has the performing arts, Nickelodeon has children's shows, and HBO has upscale drama.
But it's the History Channel that must really bother PBS, and not just because the upstart flaunts its illiberal jingoism and paranoia. As its obsession with shocking secrets suggests, the History Channel has much in common with the New York Post—and Oliver Stone. PBS treats making TV shows as if it were noble but tedious missionary work; the History Channel manages to create some comical, intriguing visual rants about "history"—and at the same time attract viewers. If the channel broadcasts downright bunk from time to time, it also curates vast quantities of old—and fascinating—newsreel footage. Sometimes all it takes to make an evocative show is jumpy period film of Antarctic explorers or the angelic-looking Alexei Romanov. With this material available, broadcasting vastly overhyped School of Burns documentaries—wide-angle beauty shots and buttery close-ups of Ivy League professors—begins to seem like a sucker's game.
So, although earnest PBS patrons and executives no doubt look at the devil-may-care History Channel and seethe, they might stand to learn an important lesson from their low-budget rival. In short, the chief ingredient of a good documentary is mystery. PBS doesn't like mystery; it prefers to chronicle What We Know. It's not just the news shows, either. Certainty reigns even on the shows on PBS that are ostensibly devoted to mysteries. A show about sea creatures last week initially seemed cool: genderless blue flat worms fighting with "multiple penises" in order to mate. But the mild show was unexpectedly strident. The writers, it seemed, were so eager to hammer home the absolute truth of evolution—they presumably had unnamed creationists in their sights—that they couldn't just let the worms do their thing. Flat worms are the first animals to search actively for food and sex—just like MAN! As each worm became an object-lesson, the show lost its appeal.
And while the History Channel plays up The Unknown, PBS is hooked on solemn, dull demystification. The omnipresent Antiques Roadshow must be the template for this buzz-kill approach to anything that might inspire even a trace of wonder in adult or child. Hopeful people show up with totemic heirlooms; experts give them a rote provenance and a price. Whether they've got a winner or a loser, the Roadshow participants always look a little stunned. They bring faith and hope to the show; what they get is expertise and cold cash.
A recent show on no less magical a figure than Vincent van Gogh (Becoming Van Gogh) did not discuss art or genius. Instead, it concentrated on cataracts, addiction, epilepsy, optics, and art-world prices. By the end, the artist had been reduced to nothing but a heap of pathology and money.
Nonfiction TV does not have to work this way. It doesn't have to diminish actual experience; it doesn't have to be depressing. What we get on PBS is state-sponsored positivism. That may be good for science, history, even government. But this is television. It's the ether—an excellent place for the imagination to expand and run wild. We don't need more false bookshelves, in service as backdrops for doctrinaire pundits. We need more secret passages.