Inside the 2016 season of “American Experience”

American Experience EP Mark Samels talks to realscreen about finding new angles on familiar stories and uncovering overlooked ones for the PBS history series' new season. (Pictured: John Maggio's Bonnie & Clyde)
December 23, 2015

PBS history series American Experience will return for a new season in January with a look at the mythology around American outlaws Bonnie Parker (pictured, right) and Clyde Barrow (left).

The long-running documentary program will also air films about a West Virginia miners revolt in the early 20th century, the assassination of president James A. Garfield, the Leopold and Loeb murder case and a little-known story of a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who in 1960 set a record for the longest skydive.

For executive producer Mark Samels, the challenge with each new season is finding overlooked stories from American history and unexpected takes on familiar ones.

“It’s not that we’re looking for a counter-intuitive angle,” he explains. “The way we dig into a subject turns up things that make it more relevant, intriguing and more complex to viewers today. We’re not satisfied with superficial, simplistic takes on stories.”

Ahead of the next season launch on January 19, Samels spoke with realscreen about the stories behind each episode.

Bonnie & Clyde - January 19
Written, produced and directed by John Maggio

American Experience looks at the story of Depression-era criminal couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow from the perspective of celebrity myth-making. Their notoriety can be traced back to a roll of film discovered at a crime scene that included the now-iconic shot of Parker posing with her foot on the bumper of a car and a cigar in her mouth.

“It transformed ordinary, small-time criminals into a national obsession,” says Samels. “She never smoked a cigar in her life and never would. It’s almost like a video going viral today – it propelled this couple onto newspaper front pages.

“People became riveted by this romantic couple on the run,” he continues. “In a way, it’s about the manufacturing of celebrity. That’s a part of a story that is not as well-known.”

The Mine Wars – January 26
Produced and directed by Randall MacLowry

The second episode focuses on a multicultural group of miners in southwestern Virginia whose attempts to form a union culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, recognized as the largest armed insurrection on U.S. soil since the Civil War.

“It resonates with a lot of things we’re struggling with as a country today,” says Samels. “It’s about the emergence of an entrenched class system, laborers in the most dangerous industry in America and mine owners who are not that far removed from being in the same class as many of the laborers. The miners lived in large labor camps, but despite that they came from all over the world and all over the country to work in the mines and achieved a sense of self-worth, dignity and solidarity.”

Murder of a President February 2
Written, produced and directed by Rob Rapley

American Experience shifts into docudrama mode for an episode about the death of U.S. president James A. Garfield, who died in 1881 after being struck down by an assassin’s bullet 79 days prior. Researchers were unable to find photos from inside the White House as doctors struggled to keep Garfield alive, so Samels decided to create a blend of archival and scripted drama based on author Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic.

“It’s stylistically different from any other episode this season,” he says. “Even though the story is set in a time period that could have been covered with archival photos and interviews, we decided to continue this sub-strand within our series of docudrama films and so this episode has scripted dramatic scenes. We wanted to get at the intimacy of the weeks that Garfield lay dying in the White House. There were no photographs in that room [and] there was no way to get there visually, so we created it.”

The Perfect CrimeFebruary 9
Produced and directed by Cathleen O’Connell

The debate around the death penalty became the focal point of the 1924 trial of two wealthy University of Chicago students known as Leopold and Loeb, who admitted to abducting and killing a 14-year-old boy for the thrill of it. The pair managed to avoid a death sentence thanks to a landmark defense mounted by their attorney Clarence Darrow.

“The story posed what I felt was a universal question: how could two incredibly intelligent, highly privileged young men commit a murder?” says Samels, who adds the focus shifted towards the legacy of the three-day speech Darrow gave to (successfully) persuade a judge not to hand down the death sentence.

“He argued against the death penalty by emphasizing their youth and that society has a responsibility for shaping the killers in our midst,” he says.

Space Men March 1
Written, produced and directed by Amanda Pollak

The season wraps up with an overlooked story of a group of researchers and Captain Joseph Kittinger, who set a skydiving record after he made an extreme altitude jump from more than 100,000 feet out of a balloon hovering above the New Mexico desert. The jump was part of aerospace research that was later overshadowed by NASA’s astronaut program.

“It’s an incredible story that nobody knows about,” says Samels. “We found this remarkable archival footage of ground tests that were done to see if the body could withstand G-forces. It showed the construction of the balloons by a private company and the ascent on this jump. On some of the other ascents there were cameras mounted on the balloons and the guy who jumped out is alive – he’s in the film.”

The new season of American Experience premieres on January 19 and airs on subsequent Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.