PBS has consistently done two things better than anyone else on television: the extravagant costume drama and programs devoted to specific artists and their art. Public television has one of each in coming days that are definitely worth going out of your way to see.
The first is a documentary on Richard Wright, author of "Native Son," "Black Boy" and other novels, short stories and essays. Wright was a successful man of letters in the 1940s and '50s, when being a man of letters almost always meant being white.
"Richard Wright -- Black Boy" details Wright's birth in Mississippi, his early poverty, his artistic struggles, his changing political philosophies, his support of the Pan-African movement and membership in the Communist Party. Much of his life is carefully illustrated through memorable black-and-white photographs from Life magazine, which chronicled a considerable portion of Wright's career.
Literary critics and acquaintances of Wright offer illuminating analysis and evocative anecdotes, but what really shines in this documentary are Wright's own words. As one critic says, "He came like a sledgehammer, like a giant out of the mountain with a sledgehammer, writing with a sledgehammer."
"Richard Wright -- Black Boy" is co-produced by the BBC and Madison Davis Lacy, who co-produced "Eyes on the Prize II." It premieres tomorrow night at 10 on WETA (Channel 26) and Tuesday at 10 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).
"Masterpiece Theatre" starts its 25th season with "The Buccaneers," a production that suggests there's a lot of life left in this PBS showcase -- with or without Mobil funding.
Set in the 1870s in Newport, R.I., and England, the unfinished Edith Wharton novel follows three young women of new money -- along with their governess of no money -- as they strive to be
launched successfully in society. The three are rich, beautiful, naive and curious -- the qualities that typify Americans in the eyes of many Europeans.
The three-part series -- which airs Oct. 8, 9 and 10 -- is cultural and class warfare of the first order, with several outstanding performances. The best is that of Mira Sorvino as Conchita Closson, a young Brazilian debutante, who steals the show, wringing every nuance and half-note out of her scenes. My guess is you'll see Sorvino -- without the accent -- in the next 10 years or so of Merchant and Ivory films.
Two other big fall productions from PBS -- the 10-part series "Rock & Roll," and Helen Mirren in "Prime Suspect 4" -- were not available for preview. "Rock & Roll" airs Sept. 24. "Prime Suspect 4" airs Oct. 22.
As for signs of life -- in a few cases, even intelligent life -- beyond the big four networks and PBS, here's what's new from UPN and Warner Bros. this fall.
On The WB
* "Pinky & the Brain." 7 p.m. Sundays. Premieres Sept. 10. Cartoon series starring two characters from "Animaniacs." Not available for preview.
* "Kirk." 8 p.m. Sundays. Premiered Aug. 23. Kirk Cameron. Sitcom starring Cameron ("Growing Pains") as a 24-year-old recent college graduate who suddenly winds up playing father and mother to his three brothers and sisters. Cameron is better than you think, but the competition is a killer. C
* "Simon." 8:30 p.m. Sundays. Premieres Sept. 10. Harland Williams and Jason Bateman. A sitcom about two brothers -- one an MBA, the other a cross between Forrest Gump and the character played by Peter Sellers in "Being There." Not available for preview.
* "First Time Out." 9 p.m. Sundays. Premieres Sept. 10. Jackie Guerra, Leah Remini, Mia Cottet, Craig Anton. A West Coast, Latina version of "Friends." But Guerra lights up the screen the same way Ricki Lake does, and the writing has a smart edge. B+
* "Cleghorne!" 9:30 p.m. Sundays. Premieres Sept. 10. Ellen Cleghorne, Garrett Morris, Alaina Reed Hall, Cerita Monet Bickelman, Sherri Shepherd and Michael Ralph. Family sitcom with Cleghorne at center as both daughter and single parent. Not available for preview.
* "Nowhere Man." 9 p.m. Mondays. Premiered Aug. 28. Bruce Greenwood. Drama about a photographer who has his existence erased in one evening. A little like "The Twilight Zone," with a bit of "The Fugitive." Tobe Hopper directed the pilot and first regular episode. Davey likes it. B+
* "Deadly Games." 8 p.m. Tuesdays. Premieres Sept. 5. Christopher Lloyd, Cynthia Gibbs, James Calvert and Stephen T. Kay. High-concept drama about villainous video-game characters coming to life. C+
* "Live Shot." 9 p.m. Tuesdays. Premieres Sept. 5. David Birney, Cheryl Pollack, Wanda De Jesus, et al. A backstage look at the world of tabloid television in Los Angeles. First up, a case much like the murder of Nicole Simpson. UPN wouldn't try to cash in on the murder, would it? B