The ladies of Downton Abbey. Whot? Us scrum? Cheeky.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.–PBS days on TCA press tours are always a step up. After two weeks of new network comedies and cop shows, of high concepts and low brow time wasters, PBS really does challenge critics to think beyond the box, to be more.
Not that it’s all one big master class. PBS has to fill the ballroom, too, and shamelessly lure critics with photo ops with Muppets as well as Batmobiles. We fall for this crap every time.
Riding a ratings surge thanks mainly to Downton Abbey, some of PBS’s fare for fall is more popcorn the usual, especially the Superheroes salute coming in October. (Saw two hours of it on the hotel’s closed circuit channel and if you love comic books, you’re gonna love Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle).
The best PBS sessions also appeal to the head and the heart; here’s a recap of the best of what critics saw Monday and Tuesday:

Monday night, reporters were treated to an intimate, private concert put on by Rosanne Cash. She performed with her producer husband, guitarist John Leventhal. They’re tremendous together, with Leventhal picking base, rhythm and lead guitar sounds out of his single instrument. Cash has never been in better voice. The Grammy-winner is showcased in PBS ARTS Fall Festival Nashville 2.0, which premieres Nov. 22.

King with filmmaker James Erskine

Tennis queen Billie Jean King served plenty of aces at her session Tuesday. She turns 70 the same night the Cash concert film premieres (also the 50th anniversary of the John F.Kennedy assassination). King won an incredible 39 tennis tournaments in her day, but is best known for thrashing Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes.
“The reason I beat him is I respected him,” says King, who remained friendly with Riggs until his death in 1995, talking to him right up until the night before he died.
An icon in the gay community, King feels she would have set the women’s movement back if she had come out in ’73 during the giddy heights of the Riggs match. Once married to a man, she told reporters she really didn’t feel comfortable in her own skin as a gay person until she was 51.
She marvels at the women’s tennis field today, describing contenders like the Williams sisters as giants. King is so tiny today it is hard to believe she was once such a formidable champion. Her American Masters salute airs Sept. 10.

Critics got to hear another song performed live during the Independent Lens production Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey. The PBS Indies Showcase airs Sept. 30 and tells the story of how ’70s/80s rockers Journey found a replacement for departed lead singer Steve Perry. They found Arnel Pineda on YouTube and turned the unknown from the Philippians into a rock star sensation. Arnel and guitarist Neal Schon treated critics to a short acoustic set.

Keanu Reeves. “I know Kung Fu!”

Tuesday also saw Keanu Reeves explain how everything is moving from film to digital. The movie star turns interviewer, chatting up the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, in Side by Side, airing Aug. 30. He says efforts to revisit Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure aren’t that excellent right now as the right script has just not come along. I asked him if digital holds risks in terms of archiving future films and he stated nothing is ideal past 50 years. It’s a bit ironic, but studios still want s film print as a backup in case the digital copy gets lost in various hard drives.

Apted (right) with one of his life-long 56 Up subjects, Tony Walker

There were also excellent sessions with director Michael Apted, back at PBS with his astounding POV special 56 Up (Oct. 14). A Frontline documentary pairs PBS with ESPN for League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (Oct. 8-15). Former New York Giant and NFL Hall of Famer Harry Carson declared the concussion crisis way worse than anybody understands and says he will not allow his grandchildren to play football. The Canadians in the room thought of Sydney Crosby and crossed their fingers.


Two of the Abbey lassies, Dockery and Froggatt

Finally, at the end of Tuesday, PBS held a reception for five of the female leads on Downton Abbey. Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason) blathered about Season Four, which is still in production in England. PBS will premiere it January 5th. Lady Mary told us she wasn’t on Twitter but her eyebrows are. That got tweeted by everybody in the room, raising Lady Mary’s eyebrows.
Networks don’t usually panel shows heading into fourth seasons at press tour but PBS is just so darn giddy at having a hit on their hands. Downton Abbey was watched by 23 million viewers like you last season.
After the session, to avoid scrums, PBS whisked the ladies into another room. Then they lined the women all up and had reporters approach them as if they were getting autographs at Comic-con. Check please.

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