Public television so seldom goes beyond the mainstream that we need to celebrate virtually every moment that it does.
One of the few consistent providers of such moments on PBS is "In the Life," a monthly newsmagazine devoted to gay and lesbian cultural matters. It is television's only national news- magazine that deals with such issues, and this month's edition, airing tonight on MPT, is one of the year's finest.
The focus is on gay and lesbian filmmakers, and there are three segments worth going out of your way to see: one on Paris Barclay, an Emmy Award-winning producer of TV drama; another on a documentary by Monika Treut about a support group in San Francisco for transgendered persons; and a third on German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, known for her queer epics and fantastic feminist fantasies.
The profile of Barclay, who won his Emmy for directing "NYPD Blue" and is now producing "City of Angels" on CBS, is typical of the solid reporting and graceful presentation that distinguishes "In the Life" from the superficial, under-reported and overstated style of network newsmagazines such as NBC's "Dateline."
Host Katherine Linton sets Barclay up for those viewers unfamiliar with him, by saying, "An African-American, he is one of the most successful openly gay producers in Hollywood."
The segment then moves onto his work, with producer Rob Stein using a day in the life of Barclay to explain the jobs of director and supervising producer on a weekly network series as well as I have seen them explained. Stein gets information from Barclay that you won't see anywhere else, such as how much one episode of "NYPD Blue" costs ($2.1 million). Or the fact that Bill Brochtrup, who plays a gay clerk in the precinct house, not Dennis Franz, who plays Detective Andy Sipowicz, is the most popular actor on the series based on the amount of mail they receive.
"In the Life" also gets Barclay talking about his experience as a gay producer working for Steven Bochco, a TV executive who makes very macho cop dramas.
"Being an openly gay producer on a show known for its macho sensibility, I thought it was going to be a predicament, something difficult to navigate, a problem.
"But, from the very first day, I found it to be exactly the opposite," Barclay says, busting the stereotype and going on to explain the ways in which coming out made his life both easier and harder on the job at Steven Bochco Productions.
Barclay also talks movingly about depression, his addiction to cocaine and how he overcame it. And always the camera is on him. Nowhere is there a phony-friendly Diane Sawyer-type correspondent battling Barclay for camera time as he speaks. This is about the story, not the celebrity correspondent and how empathetic he or she can appear.
In its report on Treut's "Gendernauts" documentary, "In the Life" is at its best, using a set of images from the mainstream to take viewers into cultures and a world of images to which they might otherwise never be exposed. The segment opens with an examination of the Academy Award-winning "Boys Don't Cry," including an interview with Hilary Swank, who played Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen in the film.
But Swank and "Boys" are only used to get viewers into Treut's real world of transgendered persons. In that world, viewers see a community of persons who provide support, help and love to each other -- offering an important balance to the dark fate that befell Teena.
My favorite segment was the one on Ottinger, mainly because the images from her films were so original and stunning. I am embarrassed to say I had seen none of her films until "In the Life" sent me running off to the video store for "Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia" and "Madame X: An Absolute Ruler," which is described in the report as an "underground lesbian cult classic."
This is not a perfect hour of television by any means. There is, after all, an interview with Madonna in which she gives less than nothing, while "In the Life" allows itself to be used by the Material Girl to promote her film, "The Next Best Thing." But the interview is blessedly short, and what newsmagazine doesn't have to play the publicity game a bit to get access to the Madonnas of the world?
I'll take that trade-off for all the honest, groundbreaking work "In the Life" has done with almost no support from the powers that be in public television. "In the Life" is the kind of show that fulfills the promise of public broadcasting.
As hungry mega-media conglomerates gobble up more and more TV channels that broadcast only in the interest of shareholders, such shows should be treasured.
At a glance
What: "In the Life"
When: Tonight from 11 to midnight
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)