PBS biography of Alcott adds to rich TV week - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

PBS biography of Alcott adds to rich TV week

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Posted: Sunday, December 27, 2009 9:10 pm | Updated: 2:03 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

 The week between Christmas and New Year’s has typically been a dead one in TV land. Save for football games, there generally isn’t a lot of original programming in prime time. But that drought seems to be ending.

This is the second year in a row that viewers have gotten more than the usual reruns, including:

“The 31st Annual Kennedy Center Honors” (8 p.m. Tuesday, CBS) with honorees Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and opera singer Grace Bumbry.

“Independent Lens: Scenes from a Parish” (10 p.m. Tuesday, PBS), a documentary about a Roman Catholic church in Lawrence, Mass., led by a young, irreverent priest who copes with the integration of longtime members with a new generation of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Vietnam and Cambodia.

“POV: Patti Smith — Dream of Life” (9 p.m. Wednesday, PBS), a biography of the rocker and artist.

The premiere of “The Real World: D.C.” (11 p.m. Wednesday, MTV), the latest iteration of one of the first reality shows.

But the most intriguing new offering may be PBS’s “American Masters” presentation of “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women,’” (9 p.m. Monday, PBS), a 90-minute biography that mixes talking head experts with dramatic recreations of scenes from Alcott’s life.

Directed and produced by Nancy Porter (“Amelia Earhart: The Price of Courage”) from a script by Harriet Reisen (author of an Alcott biography that has the same title), it’s a slick but substantive production that effortlessly blends traditional biographical elements with created dramatic scenes.

Perhaps what makes the drama work so well is that all the dialogue is taken from the writings of the historical figures featured or from first-hand reports of conversations. Strong production values and acting performances allow this documentary to avoid the cheesy re-enactment pallor in favor of a more lively, filmic quality.

Elizabeth Marvel stars as Alcott, who was born into a large family that would be mirrored in “Little Women,” which also contained other parallels to her real life.

Alcott was introduced to literary lions early in life, counting Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau among her early mentors. The film dispels any romanticizing of Alcott that may have been done by her official biographer, Ednah Dow Cheney (Jane Alexander), including a somewhat sanguine regard that Alcott held for her most famous works.

“I don’t enjoy writing moral pap for the young,” she says. “I do it because it pays well.”

Between dramatic scenes, viewers see interviews with Alcott scholars, including two elderly women who make an amusing on-screen odd couple, Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg, who have died in the years since the film began production.

The scholars help contribute to an understanding of the time and places that shaped Alcott’s life, from her many moves (30 within Boston during one stint in the city) to her nursing job at a Union hospital in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. The film also paints a portrait of Alcott’s parents and their marriage, her father’s dabbling in Utopian communities and Louisa’s relationships with her siblings, which played into the shaping of the characters in “Little Women.”

In a phone interview earlier this month, Porter said she opted for the use of dramatic scenes because the existing visuals “were daguerreotypes and grim-looking pictures” and the best approach they found was to create scenes out of selections from Alcott’s novels and journals. They also chose not to have a narrator.

“We felt a narrator would distance the audience,” she said. Instead, commentators and scholars act as narrators.

Read more about the making of “The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’” Monday in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv.

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