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Don't mess with a 'Masterpiece'

September 28, 2010 |  1:51 pm

Cooke For my entire television-viewing life, Sunday night has meant one thing: “Masterpiece Theatre.”

One of my earliest TV memories was being allowed to stay up to watch “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” It was very racy for an 8-year-old, what with all the beheadings and bare breasts. But my father was a history teacher and it was “Masterpiece Theatre,” a showcase of series so literary and well performed that it seemed at times an antithesis to television itself.  It was a show even the worst intellectual snobs could discuss openly without 10 tiresome minutes of disclaimers.

Opening with those triumphal horns and the educated elegance of Alistair Cooke, “Masterpiece Theatre” is, amazingly enough, the longest-running drama on American television, which does not mean it was comfort food. Series including "Elizabeth I," "Upstairs, Downstairs," and "I, Claudius" often featured sexually sophisticated and violent storylines that would never have made it onto network television under any other guise. “I, Claudius” still makes “The Sopranos” look like something produced by the Disney Channel.

Over the years, changes occurred as changes will — Cooke gave way to Russell Baker, then a revolving cast of hosts. The music changed and the name — “Theater’ was dropped several years ago in favor of the streamlined “Masterpiece” — “Mystery” was separated from “Classic.” But still the shows were top drawer — “Jeeves and Wooster,” “Prime Suspect,” “The Forsyte Saga,” “Bleak House.” Amid the chaos of the DVR/Hulu generation, “Masterpiece” remained destination TV. There it was, the only show of its kind, immovably and dependably on Sunday night, the last lighthouse amid the shifting waves of the digital age.

No more. At least not in Los Angeles, KCET has decided to uproot “Masterpiece” and move it to Thursday nights, where it will go up against a strong network lineup including “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS and “Bones” on Fox. "Masterpiece" will also provide a lead-in for the newly imported “Doc Martin,” a long-running British show about a country doctor that will face off against “CSI,” (CBS), “Nikita” (CW), “Grey’s Anatomy" (ABC), "The Office" (NBC) and "Fringe" (Fox).

Good luck to you, “Doc Martin.”

In place of “Masterpiece” on Sunday, Sam Rubin will host “KCET Presents,” a series showcasing old movies, beginning with “Annie Hall.”

Now I’m a fan of old movies, including “Annie Hall,” but it does appear that they are readily available in many other places, including TCM, AMC,  FMC, HBO, Showtime, On Demand and, of course, Netflix. “Masterpiece,” on the other hand, can be found only on PBS member stations, and KCET now seems to be tossing around "Masterpiece" as if it were some new reality series.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much.  Appointment television is on the wane, and those viewers who still maintain a Sunday evening ritual that includes “Masterpiece” — Oct. 3 begins the new "Wallander" series with Kenneth Branagh (except at KCET, where it's scheduled for Oct. 7) — can certainly continue to do so with the aid of a DVR.

Still, it remains a troubling decision, if only symbolically — if "Masterpiece" were a building, it would be protected by the National Registry, and by replacing it with old movies, KCET seems to be playing fast and loose with its relationship with PBS. Television is a medium that relies as much on habit as innovation and creates by its nature a stronger bond of intimacy that other art forms.

And yet the turnover rate of living shows is incredibly high — a show that lasts 10 years is a landmark. “Masterpiece” turns 40 next year. That it was able to endure with its sophistication and highbrow expectations still fully intact makes it an icon unto itself, the final connection perhaps (and with apologies to BBC America) between the Old World and the New, between the Colonies and the Crown.

No movie, no matter how splendid, can hope to compete with that.

Mary McNamara

Photo: Alistair Cooke. Credit: PBS.

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