PBS's masterful ad effort celebrates the unexpected

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The new slogan for the Public Broadcasting Service is really quite disingenuous. "Stay curious," they tell us, as if they have the monopoly on curious-minded viewers.

Nonsense.

Viewers of the major broadcast and cable networks are curious, too. They're curious whether some nitwit who needs help identifying the third planet from the sun will win a million dollars. They're curious about which gold-digging Barbie doll will be married off, live, to a supposed tycoon dressed like a maitre d'. They're curious about which exhibitionist moron will survive fragging by his fellow exhibitionist morons. They're curious, as God is my witness, if TV can make couples break up. "Change of Heart" that show is called. Unforgettable.

It's a curious America out there, and the low-brow programming designed to defeat a nation's limited attention span is getting curiouser and curiouser. Stay tuned. Next on Fox: "The World's Most Infected Animal Bites!"

In Guatemala they televise capital punishment. How this has not been imported here is a miracle beyond comprehension. "Judge Judy & Executioner." Whaddya think?

Don't answer. We don't want to know. Even the ostensibly upscale cable networks serve up titillating pulp under the pretext of history and science. Which is why PBS is all the more a national treasure. The mouthbreathers in the GOP-controlled Congress did their best to strangle "elitist" public broadcasting ("elitist" being defined by the Tom DeLays of the world as anything more sophisticated than "Walker: Texas Ranger"), but for all its flaws, PBS was destined to hold off the barbarians at the gate.

Because it is cherished. Because it is often marvelous. Because it is needed.

And here PBS is, in a sparkling campaign from Fallon, Minneapolis, reminding us that curiosity lives -- not the morbid variety that informs the televoyeurism that so inundates us, but a genuine desire to understand and more vividly experience the world around us.

The first two ads are quite charming. One is about a little farm girl who sneaks outside in the middle of the night with a spotlight, which she raises over the horizon of the henhouse window until the rooster inside, tricked, begins to crow. Another shows a little boy opening the dishwasher and removing a video camera, which is wrapped in a Zip-loc bag. He's taped the wash cycle to see how it works.

Both spots begin nearly all in black, all but a circle of tightly closed aperture that widens to reveal the opening shot. It's a nice effect, but also a perfect metaphor -- i.e., open your eyes and a more interesting life awaits you.

Again, these are very nice commercials. They pale, however, next to the utter surprise, delight and emotional transcendence of the third. It is a masterpiece.

The spot opens in a dime store photo booth. Behind the curtain, we see that a man is inside, mugging and gesticulating for one set of photostrips after another. At first we think it's a homage to the famous Hamlet Cigars spot, but, no; not hardly. Instead we get a second peek at him, silently emoting for the camera.

Cut to scene two. He is at home, listening to Enrico Caruso on his old hi-fi. It's an RCA Victor recording of the aria "Di Quella Pira" from Verdi's "Il Trovatore," and he enjoys it as he cuts out the photostrips.

But why?

Oh. That's why: He has shot enough of them in sequence to compile a flip book. As he lets them fan through his fingers, the homemade nickelodeon animates him lip-synching his favorite opera. It is to gasp, in surprise, delight and stunned admiration for the ingeniously unexpected payoff.

That, of course, is itself a metaphor for the service it advertises. Network TV thrives, for the most part, because it declines to confuse the viewer with anything unexpected.

PBS thrives, curiously enough, by doing the opposite.

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