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DAVID BIANCULLI, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Almost every time TV takes a look at itself and tries to explore or explain what it does as a medium, the result is a major disappointment - at least to me. I want TV to take itself seriously, but it almost never does. Every show about TV is either one of those dumb top 100 lists that networks like E! and VH1 crank out every month, or it's a show that's built entirely around the guests it can book, the clips it can afford, and the shows on its own network it wants to promote.

I'm happy to say - actually, I'm thrilled to say - that we're about to be treated to a glorious exception. A new four-part documentary series called "America in Primetime" premieres this Sunday on PBS, and it's the smartest TV show about television I've seen in about 20 years.

Each one-hour installment looks at a different type of TV character - independent women, the man of the house, the misfit and the crusader - and examines them very thoughtfully and very entertainingly. One of the things "America in Primetime" does that's so smart and so refreshing is that it gathers together many of the stars and writer-producers who have made the very best television, from classic shows to programs still in production today, and has them talk not only about their shows, but those created by others.

Another neat trick - and I've never seen this done before - is that it doesn't divide between comedy and drama. So in a segment on the man of the house, you get Norman Lear, the creator of "All in the Family," talking about that show's characters, and Rob Reiner, who starred as Archie Bunker's son-in-law Meathead, talking about a moment of improvisation with co-star Carroll O'Connor. But you also get Tom Fontana, the producer of such dark dramas as "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "Oz" raving about the results of that improv as an appreciative viewer and as a gifted TV writer himself. The first voice you hear is that of Norman Lear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

NORMAN LEAR: The fact that the show had been successful freed us to let these people be themselves. You know, so we were able to write them from the inside-out, not from the outside-in.

CARROLL O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Hey, hold it. Hold it. Hold it. What are you doing here?

ROB REINER: (as Michael) What?

O'CONNOR: What about the other foot? There ain't no sock on it.

REINER: (as Michael) I'll get to it.

He stopped me in the middle of rehearsal and said, what are you doing? I said, what do you mean what am I doing?

O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) Don't you know that the whole world puts on a sock and a sock and a shoe?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

REINER: When we got into this improvised discussion about it.

(as Michael) I like to take care of one foot at a time.

The directors and writers were writing it down and making it fit.

O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

LEAR: I mean, that had nothing to do with anything that was going on at the time. That's just human behavior. It still holds up, because that's just rich character stuff.

BIANCULLI: In this documentary, directed by Lloyd Kramer and executive-produced by Kramer, Tom Yellin and others, there's no narration and no writing, as such - just people interviewed about their craft, making observations about TV, and lots and lots of clips from television to make and probe each point. That's why PBS is the perfect home for this kind of program. Public television gets special dispensation to show these clips without having to pay the normal rights fees.

So we see a lot of television, here, and for once, the right clips. We see the connection between Larry David's writing on "Seinfeld" and his performing on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." We see how Mary Tyler Moore led to "Murphy Brown," and how they, in turn, led to "Nurse Jackie."

And when these people talk about TV, they don't feel the need to play nice and agree. While most writer-producers in this show talk about television drama series as a novel, allowing an examination of characters over dozens of hours instead of just a movie-length drama, "Sopranos" creator David Chase asks: What's so great about that? Who needs a "Casablanca" II, III or IV? And when it comes to the idea of having a serial killer as your central character in Showtime's "Dexter," you'd be surprised who doesn't approve of that concept. At least I was surprised, because right along with Michael C. Hall, the star of "Dexter," talking about his vengeful character, you have Tom Fontana and then David Simon, creator of "The Wire," talking about why they think "Dexter" goes too far. In this clip, you hear Fontana first, then Michael C. Hall, then Fontana again, and finally David Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIMETIME IN AMERICA")

TOM FONTANA: You know, a very, very intriguing television series, but it is one of those shows you go, like, eek.

MICHAEL C. HALL: I know early on in the show, people who were watching it would approach me and say that they kind of felt guilty about the fact that they liked the show.

FONTANA: God knows, I've written a lot of serial killers in my time, but I've never asked the audience to believe in the triumph of a serial killer.

DAVID SIMON: There's nothing wrong with depicting violence. Violence is part of the human condition. I understand that their tongue is in their cheek, in a way, and I understand it's sort of an inside-out show. But frankly, as well a show as it maybe made, I don't want to be part of any show that would suggest that there is a catharsis in violence and in serial killing.

BIANCULLI: I love the debate that ensues from that, just as much as I love "Dexter" and "The Wire" and "Homicide." I love "America in Primetime," too. When you watch it, you're likely to be excited by the examples they choose: The hour on "Misfits" covers everything from "The Addams Family" and "Freaks and Geeks" to "Taxi" and "True Blood." And every example they show is a TV program you should seek out and enjoy. And the same goes for "America in Primetime."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BLOOD THEME")

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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