The Watchman: PBS Ranks Our Most Beloved Books, and Amazon Hosts a ‘Picnic’

The Great American Read, a series about the best-loved novels in America, debuts on PBS May 22. Meredith Vieira hosts, as a coterie of pundits, including George R.R. Martin, Seth Meyers and Gayle King, talk about the novels they love.

“They advocate for certain books — books that made them change the way they write, the way they think,” executive producer Jane Root said. “The books that were pivotal in their lives.”

PBS has announced the nation’s 100 best novels. Root said the list is the product of a “huge national survey” of more than 3,000 Americans. “We wanted people to talk about the books they love most, rather than the best book,” Root said.

The list spans five centuries, dating back to Don Quixote from 1603 up to Ghost in 2016. Also on the list: 1984, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Hunt for Red October, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre and, America being America, Fifty Shades of Grey. “It’s a really great snapshot of what people care about in America,” Root said.

The series spans eight hours. Themed shows tackle love stories, monsters and villains, etc. PBS will list the 100 from 100 up to No. 1. What is Root’s pick for No. 1? The Chronicles of Narnia.

“It opened up a magical world for me,” said Root. “Harry Potter is in many 10-year-olds’ lives now. Narnia was in my life when I was 9 or 10.”

And apparently, it still is. Speaking of amazing books, Amazon debuts Picnic at Hanging Rock on May 25. The series is based on an Australian novel by Joan Lindsay. If PBS were to count down the top books in Australia, Picnic at Hanging Rock might just win.

“It’s The Great Gatsby, all of Shakespeare, and the Bible,” is how Larysa Kondracki, show-runner and director, describes the way the book is regarded in Australia.

The series is about the disappearance of three schoolgirls and a teacher on Valentine’s Day in 1900. Kondracki describes it as a “genre mashup” — a mystery, a period piece and a deep character study. “It’s Kubrick meets The Breakfast Club, only they happen to be dressed in corsets,” she said, also tossing in a reference to Heathers.

Natalie Dormer, who plays Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones, is in the cast. Dormer was Kondracki’s first choice to play Hester Appleyard, enigmatic headmistress. “She didn’t want to get in a corset again,” Kondracki said.

A Skype conversation nonetheless ensued. Dormer probably hoped it would go 10 minutes, said Kondracki. Instead, it went two hours.

All six episodes are available May 25. “I think this is a binge-y one,” said Kondracki. “It definitely suits this kind of show.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.