Picks and Pans Review: Miss America

updated 01/28/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/28/2002 01:00AM

PBS (Sun., Jan. 27, 9 p.m. ET)

"There she is, Miss America...." Ah, nobody sang it like cornball Bert Parks, who was canned in 1980 after 25 years as host. Yet, despite a dwindling viewership, millions still watch the annual rite live from Atlantic City, and this critical but balanced American Experience documentary acknowledges the pageant's status as a national institution—anachronistic though it may be.

Besides noting the AIDS-education efforts of Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, the two-hour program offers little of interest on contests of the past decade. It ignores Parks's successors, except for a reference to ex-Tarzan Ron Ely and a fleeting glimpse of Donny Osmond. (What were Regis and Kathie Lee—chopped liver?) Likewise, there's nothing about recent talk of moving the pageant out of Atlantic City.

Nevertheless, Miss America is rich in history, from the pageant's founding in 1921 by tourism-minded Atlantic City businessmen to the nude-photo scandal that cost Vanessa Williams her title in 1984—and hardly seems to have hurt her singing and acting career. Williams, the first African-American winner, isn't interviewed, but the film includes reminiscences by two other mold-breakers: Bess Myerson (1945), who overcame prejudice as the first Jewish Miss America, and Rebecca King (1974), who dared not to shed the customary tears at her coronation and went on to express controversial support for abortion rights.

Pageant clips range from hilarious (square Parks dancing like a crazy rock and roller) to appalling (a 1960 contestant nervously opposing the idea of a woman President). They remind us why viewers keep returning to the Miss America telecast—whether to root or hoot.

Bottom Line: As watchable as a bevy of beauties

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