Stream 23 Free Documentaries from PBS’ Award-Winning American Experience Series

How to under­stand a coun­try as enor­mous, as cul­tur­al­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly pro­duc­tive, and as con­tra­dic­to­ry and frus­trat­ing as the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca? As an Amer­i­can myself, I’m here to tell you that there’s no short­cut. I live abroad, and dis­tance has pro­vid­ed me a help­ful new per­spec­tive, but my curios­i­ty about how my home­land turned out like it did remains strong. That same curios­i­ty pos­sess­es many an Amer­i­can and non-Amer­i­can alike, and they all can sati­ate at least some of it by watch­ing episodes of the PBS doc­u­men­tary series Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence avail­able free online. Note: We have a list of stream­able episodes down below.

Since pre­mier­ing at The Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence on Octo­ber 4, 1988 with an episode on the great San Fran­cis­co earth­quake of 1906, the arti­cle may have fall­en away, but the in-depth explo­ration of U.S. his­to­ry has con­tin­ued apace. While hard­ly for­mu­la­ic, the episodes do tend start with a par­tic­u­lar event, place, or indi­vid­ual that time has ren­dered icon­ic. And so, at the top of the post, we have the Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence por­trait of Thomas Edi­son, the “hold­er of more patents than any oth­er inven­tor in his­to­ry” who grew rich and famous “as the genius behind such rev­o­lu­tion­ary inven­tions as sound record­ing, motion pic­tures, and elec­tric light.”

Edi­son has indeed come to rep­re­sent the Amer­i­can arche­type of the self-made mil­lion­aire whose sheer inge­nu­ity would improve lives across the coun­try, and ulti­mate­ly the world. But the coin has, as always, anoth­er side: how much of Edis­on’s suc­cess owes to his own hard work, and how much owes to his com­bi­na­tion and mar­ket­ing of the work of oth­ers? (Sim­i­lar ques­tions have con­tin­ued to swirl around more recent larg­er-than-life fig­ures in Amer­i­can busi­ness, not least Steve Jobs.) Anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing­ly com­pli­cat­ed lega­cy, as well as quite pos­si­bly Amer­i­ca’s most scru­ti­nized life and death, comes in for the Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence treat­ment in the series’ four-hour episode on John F. Kennedy.

In addi­tion to these sto­ries of Amer­i­can per­son­al­i­ties, the online archive also has sto­ries of Amer­i­can places like Mount Rush­more, Amer­i­can achieve­ments like space trav­el, Amer­i­can eras like the year 1964, and even pieces of Amer­i­can infra­struc­ture like Penn Sta­tion. And of course, giv­en the insa­tiable Amer­i­can appetite for pres­i­den­tial biogra­phies, such com­man­ders-in-chief as Jim­my Carter, Ronald Rea­gan, and Bill Clin­ton also have their own episodes. But view­ers out­side Amer­i­ca should note that, because of geo­graph­i­cal rights restric­tions, not all these videos may stream for them. Since I live out­side Amer­i­ca myself, I’ve got the same prob­lem, but then again, I’ll also have some binge-watch­ing (and cul­tur­al rein­tro­duc­tion) mate­r­i­al on my next trip back.

The titles list­ed above will be added to our col­lec­tion of Free Online Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch PBS’ Amer­i­can Mas­ters Doc­u­men­taries (Includ­ing Scorsese’s Homage to Kazan) Free Online

Ten Build­ings that Changed Amer­i­ca: Watch the Debut Episode from the New PBS Series

265 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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