Two PBS shows can stand up to network Mondays

For several years, the best television on Tuesday nights has been PBS' intelligent, insightful combination of the science series "Nova" at 8 o'clock, followed by the documentaries of "Frontline."

Though it's up against a bit stronger opposition, the argument can certainly be made that PBS offers the best series programming on Monday nights these days with the duo of "Travels" and "The American Experience." Though both are relatively new to the PBS schedule, in a couple of years they have established a track record that makes them of near don't-miss quality.


Tonight, for example, starting at 8 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, "Travels" delivers another of its quirky, interesting hours that all seem to take the traditional travelogue and send it to post-modern graduate school.

"A Journey Through Italy: For the Colors" is a tour of the boot-shaped land through the eyes of American photographer Jeffrey Becom. He rejects most of the well-trod sites and oft-reproduced images in his search for the colors that he claims are one of the truest expressions of a country's health and vibrancy.


It's a journey that begins just down the coast from the crowds of Venice, where the residents of a tiny fishing village have long used the color of their houses for self-expression. On the country's other coast, another town reveals fantastic trompe-l'oeil-style decorations.

In the south, Becom shows us the strange beehive houses of one town, just being discovered by the tour buses, and the ruins of another hilltop village, stupidly abandoned after a water main break caused the collapse of several houses.

Though the narration jerks unpredictably between Becom and series host John Heminway, and Becom can become a bit smug about how his view of Italy is more authentic than that seen by most visitors, it is still an engaging hour.

At 9 o'clock, the "American Experience" hour, "Coney Island," is even better. It's a fascinating look at the evolution of the sandy isle off the coast of Brooklyn that became a synonym for the amusement park.

In the 19th century, Coney Island became New York City's collective house of ill repute, a place all could go slumming for gambling and prostitution and the like. Eventually it was cleaned up into a respectable resort for those who wished to escape the city for the summer.

It was not until the turn of the century approached that Coney Island took its place in the American imagination as, one after another, huge parks opened up, each beckoning to the public with thousands of the still-new electric lights, with shows and spectacles, rides and reverie.

What this hour effectively demonstrates is that Coney Island did more than amuse, it introduced America to the concepts of modernity that would dominate the century just beginning, that it faded when the lights of Manhattan became brighter than those of its parks.

And it makes you realize that amusement parks are now seen as entertainment for children because they still serve the same function, a non-threatening orientation into the very threatening world that they must call home.