Cheap to produce, uncontroversial as a rule, and able to pass as educational programming that sometimes actually is, biography shows are all over the cable networks right now. Channels ranging from Lifetime (with its dewy Intimate Portraits) to The Nashville Network (and its aw-shucks, upbeat The Life and Times of… series) have all hopped on the bio bandwagon. None is more successful than A&E’s Biography, which over 11 seasons has profiled everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Andy Warhol, and which spends the week of June 22 focused on a “Fabulous ’50s” theme that includes profiles of Ernie Kovacs, Donna Reed, and a two-hour epic, Ozzie and Harriet: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family.

By now, it’s pretty well known that while Ozzie Nelson played a bumbling dad on TV, behind the camera he was a shrewd dude—a successful former ’40s bandleader who couldn’t read music who then became a maverick TV producer-director, parlaying his real-life clan into long-running fame. Hats off to writer-producer Peter Jones, who transcends the usual Biography platitudes to reveal Harriet Nelson as a strong businesswoman in her own right, and to delve into the Nelson family’s various dysfunctions.

Consider Matthew Nelson, son of Ricky and Kristin Nelson, who says, “Our parents both effectively lost their minds at a certain point.” While giving Ricky Nelson his due as an underrated rock musician, the show doesn’t shy away from his drug use, Kristin’s admitted alcoholism, or the vicious battle Kristin’s brother, Chicago Hope‘s Mark Harmon, waged for custody of the couple’s son Sam after Ricky’s plane-crash death in 1985.

An equally good Biography is “Ernie Kovacs: Please Stand By,” airing June 23. If you’re even minimally aware of TV history, you know Kovacs made his legend as a pioneer of surrealist sight gags. But what impressed me more about this hour was its revelatory portrayal of Kovacs’ personality. The guy was tremendously likable on and off camera, big and rangy, with a long cigar always stuck in the side of his mouth, and whose upper lip featured a close-cropped black mustache of the sort you never see nowadays. Kovacs comes across as a witty hustler, a type that has disappeared from TV.

Mind you, most editions of Biography aren’t as good as these; too often, they’re trite recitations of familiar facts, with regular narrator Peter Graves intoning banalities like “As happens so often in Hollywood, success was accompanied by heartache….”

Over on MTV, BIOrhythm‘s gimmick is to do without narration, revealing a life through music and interview snippets. An installment on the murdered Tupac Shakur, for example, tells Shakur’s gangsta-rap tragedy through sound bites from people like Bobby Seale (the Black Panther leader with whom Shakur’s mother, Afeni, worked) and Shakur himself. Snapshots, music videos, and superimposed captions fill out chronology; there’s a heartbreaking clip of a 17-year-old Shakur talking about how much he loves his life. BIOrhythm, intentionally ragged but factually meticulous, is riveting.

E! too has something novel in its Mysteries & Scandals, hosted by former gossip columnist A.J. Benza. This is not because its budget is particularly high—if anything, a half-hour clip job on a Scandals subject like Bela Lugosi must be rock-bottom cheap — but because of Benza himself. A self-styled tough guy trying for the rat-a-tat style of a latter-day Walter Winchell, Benza will conclude a show about obscure actress Peg Entwistle—whose claim to (non-) fame is that she jumped off the Hollywood sign—with the tossed-off comment “If all the out-of-work actors in Hollywood decided to kill themselves, we’d be a city without waiters.” It’s a good, typically cynical line, but it doesn’t make us care any more about his subject than he seems to.

Biographical shows continue to proliferate; MSNBC already has the Jane Pauley-hosted Time & Again bio series, and its cable sibling, CNBC, has begun filming In Profile, its own answer to A&E’s Biography. Pretty soon, they’re all going to run out of people to profile (A&E is already doing random entrepreneurs like department-store magnate J.C. Penney). Then, I guess, the genre will turn into a variation on The Truman Show: You’ll be watching biographies of the schmo next door—or yourself. In fact, I think I’ll go out and slap a fresh coat of paint on the house, in case a TV crew comes by this summer. Biography: B+ BIOrhythm: B+ Mysteries & Scandals: B

  • TV Show