If you're not interested in watching the Survivor season a million premiere tonight, and the allure of on demanding last night's wan NBC comedies isn't all that potent, we have a suggestion for you: PBS' documentary miniseries Broadway or Bust. It's actually something we missed ourselves (rather bizarrely considering the subject matter) until just yesterday. The three-part series, which finishes up its run this Sunday, is about the Jimmy Awards, an annual musical theater competition held for 60 of the nation's best and brightest high school-age performers. Yes folks, this is a documentary about that most wondrous, maddening, achingly funny, and occasionally tragic type of youngster: the theater kid. And it's glorious!
Well, OK, obviously this might not be everyone's cup of tea. Some of you weirdos out there don't seem to care much about crazy 17-year-olds who know all the words to 60-year-old musicals and go giddy at the sight of Michael Feinstein, the Tim Tebow of the White Way. Maybe you have to have been one of those kids in order to really enjoy the stomach-plunging "oh god I was that awful once, wasn't I?" feeling of recognition that one gets watching something like Broadway or Bust. A show like Glee has widened the demographic for this sort of thing by throwing in auto-tuned pop songs and silly/soapy storylines, but you can't really do that with a documentary. So, again, this might be for a select few of you.
Still, you should give it a try. There are high stakes and genuine tension — only two kids will win the top prize at the competition, which involves an individual performance and terrifying group medley numbers — just like in any good drama, and there is a likable cast of characters who seem real, mostly because they are. There are no cartoony Kurt Hummels here (although one boy does admittedly come close); these are regular(-ish) kids who human-sized personalities, and darned if they aren't more interesting because of it. Actually the more outlandish people in the series are the coaches, especially raspy-voiced choreographer Kiesha Lalama, who employs a particularly theater-y brand of tough love that will strike chords of both fear and fond remembrance in many of a heart. The kids strive with gangly abandon, the coaches encourage or berate them, and the show spins on. This being PBS, it's mostly a gentle affair, but there is of course still that undercurrent of pain and potentially thwarted dreaminess that is inherent to this particularly punishing hobby.
The first two installments are available online, and again the final third — who will win?? — is coming up on Sunday. That's three hours of diverting, engaging entertainment to keep you occupied while this pretty limp season of television unfolds with a whimper. You might not be a show-person, but we bet you'll still find something worthwhile here. When you're done, we'd recommend watching the theater camp documentary Stagedoor on Netflix, if you're up for another dose of manic, cheery insanity.