What's on PBS this fall? -- The public television network airs new seasons of ''Frontline,'' ''The American Experience,'' and ''Mystery!''

Columbus and the Age of Discovery

Call it the Jewel in the Crown syndrome. Call it the aftermath of The Civil War. The downside of critical success on public television is that all new programs are measured against such PBS blockbusters for years afterward. ”Well!” critics harrumph, ”Rumpole: The Wilderness Years is good, but it’s not exactly Jewel in the Crown, is it?”

Okay: There’s no Civil War on public TV this fall. (Although stick around: War filmmaker Ken Burns is at work on a history of baseball, scheduled for the 1992 season.) But there are some decent-sounding history, drama, nature, public affairs, and children’s programs on the schedule. Big-ticket series include Columbus and the Age of Discovery, a seven-hour overview of the explorer, his world, and his legacy. Drawing on the scheduling success of The Civil War, the series will air on four consecutive nights. Childhood paints a composite portrait of growing up from infancy to adolescence by highlighting everyday events in the lives of 12 families in different countries. Land of the Eagles describes North America’s wilderness as it looked hundreds of years ago and promises a dose of that awesome landscape footage that makes Nature lovers ooh and aah.

Robert Krulwich, the witty NPR commentator and CBS reporter, is the host of Edge, a monthly whither-pop-culture series that is not to be confused with Fox’s new E.D.J. Contributors include humorists Buck Henry, Harry Shearer, and Lynda Barry. And there’s wit for 8- to 13-year-olds in Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, a daily half-hour game show based on the popular computer game of the same name. The whizzy series sneaks in important geography lessons; it also counts Kool Moe Dee, Debbie Gibson, Penn & Teller, and Paul Shaffer among the drop-in celebrities.

The consistently high-quality series The American Experience opens its fourth season with LBJ, a four-hour, two-part political biography. American Playhouse, which continues to be involved in the coproduction of theatrically released films, returns with Longtime Companion. (Watch for Metropolitan, Whit Stillman’s award-winning film on the rise and fall of young socialites.) Nova calls on expert Alan Rachins (L.A. Law‘s Douglas Brackman) to host Sex, Lies and Toupee Tape, which attempts to get at the roots of baldness; the following week, Doogie Howser, M.D. star Neil Patrick Harris is host of a two-hour Nova program called So You Want to Be a Doctor? (Get it?)

Frontline, which used to frighten fainthearted local station managers with its controversial subject matter, is a venerable 10 years old — and, in the tradition of the venerable Geraldo Rivera, opens its new season with My Doctor, My Lover, about a woman who sued her former psychotherapist over their sexual relationship.

Mystery! returns with new cases for Adam Dalgliesh and Sherlock Holmes: P.D. James’ Devices and Desires and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes; coming in February is Prime Suspect. Masterpiece Theatre‘s lineup includes a three-part John le Carré tale, A Murder of Quality, and Sleepers, about two Soviet spies.

Columbus and the Age of Discovery
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