October 29, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Great Depression

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In Season
Def Jam
We gave it an A-

After what seems like a long wait, we finally get something from PBS that’s exhilarating. Oddly enough, it’s The Great Depression (PBS, Nov. 1, 9-11 p.m.). This seven-hour documentary, broken into chunks airing on four successive Mondays, is admirably lively and complex. Executive producer Henry Hampton (Eyes on the Prize) combines history, politics, economics, and nostalgic reminiscence to retell the story of America from the end of the 1920s to the outbreak of World War II. The second half of the Nov. 1 edition is a fascinating look at novelist Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), a democratic socialist whose EPIC (End Poverty In California) campaign nearly got him elected governor of the state in 1934-until a loose coalition of Hollywood powers succeeded in discrediting him.

This is a true underbelly-of-showbiz story. As The Great Depression tells it, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer found Sinclair’s proposals dangerously radical (Sinclair wanted, for example, to give unemployed actors and technicians free use of movie sets the big studios weren’t using, to make their own films). Mayer and other movie-industry conservatives helped concoct a newsreel campaign that contained fake ”man on the street” interviews condemning Sinclair, which helped turn the vote against the novelist. Full of juicy plots and political skullduggery, The Great Depression teaches history with vividness and sorrowful wit. A-

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