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 Presidents: FDR
- The Presidents: Truman
- The Presidents: JFK
- The Presidents: LBJ
- The Presidents: Nixon
- The Presidents: Jimmy Carter
- The Presidents: Reagan
- The Presidents: George H.W. Bush
- The Presidents: Clinton
- The Big Burn
- Space Men
- Murder of a President
- The Mine Wars
- The Forgotten Plague
- Mount Rushmore
- Klansville USA
- Freedom Summer
- Freedom Riders
- The Rise and Fall of Penn Station
- The Poisoner’s Handbook
- God in America
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.
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
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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