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Ken Burns, Steve Martin and the cosmos coming to PBS' fall lineup

May 9, 2011 |  2:44 pm

Banjos! Speakeasies! Ken Burns! Steve Martin! An epic exploration of space and time! They're all coming to PBS' fall season, the network announced Monday. And they'll probably make you smarter than watching your 10th "Two and a Half Men" rerun.

Ranking high among the highlights of the new schedule is "Prohibition," a documentary series helmed by Burns and Lynn Novick. Due in October, the series claims to "go beyond the oft-told tales of gangsters, rumrunners, flappers and speakeasies to experience the rise, rule and fall of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." With music by Wynton Marsalis and narration by Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson and others, the series should give "Boardwalk Empire" fans a good history lesson. (Though it might not explain what's up with our favorite nutty flapper, Paz de la Huerta.)

For anyone who thinks the jazz age was overrated, there's a big celebration of the bluegrass era in "Give Me the Banjo," a film narrated by Steve Martin, the best banjo-strumming stand-up funny guy of recent times (and maybe the only banjo-strumming stand-up funny guy of recent times). Exploring the roots of American music — from the minstrel show to contemporary country — it features performances and commentary from Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, Béla Fleck and the Carolina Chocolate Drops — though none of them, in our opinion, is any match for this guy.

For those who might favor Janis Joplin over the soundtrack to "Deliverance," there's "Women Who Rock," a film inspired by an exhibit at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Following female performers from Bessie Smith to Lady Gaga, this documentary aims to show "what it means to be female in the male-dominated world of rock and roll, while exploring how those dynamics between the sexes have changed with time."

And speaking of changing with time, physicist and author Brian Greene returns to NOVA with "The Fabric of the Cosmos," a four-part miniseries (airing Wednesdays, Nov. 2-23) that explains how scientists are "piecing together the most complete picture yet of space, time and the universe, revealing that just beneath the surface of our everyday experience lies a world that is far stranger and more wondrous than anyone expected." Guess what's the new must-see TV for Stephen Hawking?

— Melissa Maerz