My favorite moments from the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter 2012 Press Tour, Day 2, which featured the concluding presentations for PBS:
1. Tony Bennett — The legendary singer closed PBS’ press tour sessions with a fabulous and energetic half-hour performance that showed the 85-year-old artist has lost none of his amazing voice and performance style. He regaled us with a selection of standards, including, of course, his signature classic, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Bennett has a Jan. 27 Great Performances special on PBS called Tony Bennett: Duets II, which goes behind the scenes of the recording of that album, on which Bennett teamed with a number of artists, including Lady Gaga. After his performance for us, Bennett sat down for about 45 minutes of Q&A, touching on everything from his upbringing and inspirations, to the need for arts education in American schools, to the recording of Duets II. Oh, and also his singing of “Capital City” in a classic episode of The Simpsons. (Leave it up to a TV critic to ask about that.) The man is nearly twice my age and obviously has far more energy than I do, and it was an incredible experience watching him do what he clearly still has a great passion for.
2. Anna Deavere Smith’s tour de force performance — Smith stars in Let Me Down Easy, a one-woman play she created based on hundreds of interviews she conducted with both famous and everyday people, regarding how they are facing illness and death — both of others and of themselves. Before her Q&A session with us today, Smith acted out four of the 19 characters she performs in the play (airing Jan. 13 on PBS), and it was incredible to see her mentally and physically adopt the speech and traits of everyone from a rodeo bull rider to the director of a South African orphanage who has a heartbreaking story about easing the minds of AIDS-stricken children as they near their inevitable fate.
3. Burly the Koala — As part of Nature‘s presentation of its May 16 episode, “Cracking the Koala Code” (working title), the show brought out a special guest. Burly, a male koala from the San Diego Zoo, came on stage, complete with his own little eucalyptus tree, on which he sat comfortably munching away (when he wasn’t giving the stinkeye to a photographer who was getting too close to him). The “AWWW” factor was almost too great to bear, and even inspired someone to create a quick Twitter account for the lovable creature (despite their apperance, though, koalas actually aren’t all that lovable and cuddly toward humans, from what the scientists on the panel were saying). After the session we got to go up to the stage near Burly, but no petting was allowed.
4. Sherlock, Series II — Although star Benedict Cumberbatch was available only by satellite, it was still fun to hear him and costar Lara Pulver (who was at the session in person) talk about the anticipated next season of the excellent updating of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, which will air in America on PBS May 6, 13 and 20. Getting a few comments up close from the lovely Pulver after the session was a nice plus to the day, as well. Martin Freeman returns as Watson, and the extended preview we saw looked great.
5. Preview of Ken Burns’ “The Dust Bowl” — It’s always exciting when Ken Burns has a new project, and his latest, about the devastating man-made disaster known as the Dust Bowl that struck in the 1930s, will air this November. We saw a 15-minute preview, in which several people who actually were children during the Dust Bowl and lived through it recount just how horrific the dust and sand storms were. It looks like a fascinating subject; the only quibble I have is that Burns’ films are starting to look interchangeable at this point. This film again even has Peter Coyote as narrator. But the firsthand stories of the time should make this indispensable viewing for history buffs.
Photos courtesy of Rahoul Ghose/PBS