It’s easy to dismiss reality television as a table-flipping, backbiting, redneck-baiting mess, to judge by some of the shows that top the ratings and garner press that ranges from clucking disapproval to horrified fascination. But one of the best things about the cable presentations at the Television Critics Association press tour, which I’ll be at until January 16, is a reminder of just how big the landscape is, and how much fascinating, substantive reality and documentary programming is coming up over the next six months. These are the five shows and documentaries that I’m most looking forward to after hearing their creators and casts talk to us in Pasadena:
1. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God, HBO, February 4: Alex Gibney’s documentaries are always fierce and compelling. But he’s found a particularly enraging and moving subject in this novel take on the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church: the attacks on a group of boys at a Catholic school for the deaf, by a priest who was the rare hearing person at the time to speak American Sign Language, an ability that enhanced his sense of priestly authority. Watching the men talk about their experiences as children, and what it meant to them to gather the courage to write to the Vatican to testify to their abuse, to find each other and learn they weren’t alone, and even to confront Father Murphy, who managed to convince the Vatican to let him stay a priest by arguing that he’d repented, is shattering and triumphant. They are, as Gibney put it during the panel for the movie, “people who were voiceless in the hearing world, who nevertheless had their voices heard.”
2. The President’s Gatekeepers, Discovery, July TBD: From Jules and Gédéon Naudet, brothers who were working on a documentary about New York firefighters on September 11 and ended up making 9/11, an insider perspective on the tragedy instead, this documentary includes interviews with all 19 living White House Chiefs of Staff. Executive producer Chris Whipple said it was fascinating to see how, despite the extreme partisan reputations of Chiefs ranging from Dick Cheney, who worked for President Ford, to Rahm Emanuel, the job itself, which most of the Chiefs described as the hardest they’d ever had, involved intense bipartisan cooperation. And the Naudets promise fascinating inside stories, like Bill Daley’s account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Apparently, Daley asked Obama to postpone the White House Correspondent’s Association dinner, but Obama demurred, insisting that everything proceed as normal. During the dinner, Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet got an email that his White House tour had been cancelled, and started asking Daley if something momentous was underfoot. Daley told him a pipe had burst in the White House and promised to personally conduct the tour at a later date. The rest is history.
3. March To Justice, Investigation Discovery, February TBD: I’ll be fascinated to see this movie, if only to see more of Carolyn McKinstry, a survivor of the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing — and a subsequent bombing of her home. At the panel on Saturday, she spoke about the psychological toll of the bombing, and changes in trauma treatment for children in the years since, where early psychological intervention has become the norm. “There was not that type of opportunity for us back then. In fact, we didn’t even talk about this bombing in my home. The only people I talked with were the FBI. They came through regularly, asked questions, and recorded your answers,” she explained. “But my parents didn’t talk about — they didn’t say, ‘Are you afraid? Do you want to talk about what happened? Do you miss your friends?’ We didn’t talk about it at home. I went to school Monday morning at 8:00. No one said anything. It wasn’t mentioned ever at church, at home, or at school.” She’s a powerful reminder that the past isn’t really past, and that we’re grappling not just with the policy implications of the Civil Rights movement, but with the direct and personal memories of people who lived through it.
4. Inside Combat Rescue, Nat Geo, February TBD: One of the aspects of war that’s least reflected in popular culture is the logistics it takes to wage one, whether it’s the actual size and complexity of American forward operating bases, or the supply chains it takes to keep soldiers armed, fed, rested, and protected. For that reason alone, I’m fascinated by Inside Combat Rescue, which documents the efforts of the medical teams who head out in helicopters, retrieve, stabilize, and bring American soldiers back from the front lines of our current conflicts. I’ll be curious to learn more about how Nat Geo worked out the ethics of filming wounded subjects. But it’s a powerful illustration of the cost of war.