TV Series Review: American Experience

American Experience: Billy the Kid (53 minutes, airing Jan. 10, 2012) and Custer’s Last Stand (120 minutes, airing Jan.17), PBS

The PBS series American Experience opens 2012 with a monthlong salute to the Wild West, including two new entries. In the Billy the Kid episode, which features comments by Paul Hutton, Frederick Nolan, Mark Lee Gardner and Michael Wallis, Hutton calls Billy a “consistent rebel.” Producer/director John Maggio covers the outlaw’s entire short life, from the sketchy early years (William Henry McCarty, aka Billy the Kid, was likely born in New York City) to the Kid’s 1881 death in Fort Sumner.

Everything seems a bit rushed at times (another half hour might have helped), and there are a few misleading moments. For instance, at no point does it state the Kid was convicted of murder in Mesilla, and a viewer new to the story might come away thinking the trial was held in Santa Fe. One unavoidable problem is that the same Billy the Kid image appears on screen some 20 different times (after all, there is only that one image). Maggio does make it clear why the Hispanic community took to the Kid.

The other new episode is titled Custer’s Last Stand, but it is in fact a two-hour biography that covers in some detail George’s relationship with wife Libbie (they were the power couple of their day, says biographer Louise Barnett), his Civil War career and his adventures and misadventures in the West before he met his end at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Stephen Ives, who worked with Ken Burns on 1996’s The West, wrote and directed this Custer entry. As expected, historic photos are the visual treat. George and Libbie pop up repeatedly (you can’t go wrong with that), and we hear excerpts from their letters to each other. The documentary makes sense of the making of the Custer myth.

PBS also plans January rebroadcasts of its shows about Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, Annie Oakley and Jesse James.

—Editor


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