It never fails. One generation's vice becomes the next era's "history" and "culture." Even jazz started out in bawdy houses and saloons before it became America's classical music. Rock 'n' roll went from being the source of juvenile delinquency to having its own Hall of Fame. Now the joystick generation is old enough to have its own history, as evidenced in the thought-provoking five-part series "Rise of the Video Game" (7 p.m., Discovery).
Like almost every technical innovation of the past 50 years, video games were a spin-off of the Cold War military buildup. "Rise" includes amusing interviews with the inventors of crude early video games consisting of a ping-pong game played on an old oscilloscope. Later, a programmer used a "mini" computer the size of a large refrigerator to create the pixellated image of two dueling rockets. Players consisted almost entirely of bored Defense Department employees with time on their hands. Enough time, it seems, to invent an early joystick.
We also see early Magnavox prototypes for home gaming as well as the advent of Atari. "Rise" is smart enough to avoid the anecdotal and personal-nostalgia approach that mars so many smug, purposely shallow retrospectives on VH1. Each game is discussed in terms of the culture and politics of its time. The early shoot-'em-ups reflected the Cold War, but did you ever think of Pong in terms of feminism? According to experts here, Pong entered America's bars and arcades at the same time as women's liberation. It enabled women to compete on an equal playing field with their boyfriends, and frequently beat them. We also learn how Space Invaders mirrored some of the doomed and defeatist attitudes of postwar Japanese society. There's also a fun bit on the Japanese market research that went into the "cute" aesthetics of Pac Man.
Atari's rapid growth attracted a corporate buyer who paid no attention to its creative process, resulting in the spectacular failure of an "ET" game. The company had to find a huge landfill to get rid of all of the unsold copies of that stinker.
Part one of "Rise" concludes with the end of the Cold War, but not before heralding the one great Soviet contribution to gaming - Tetris. Next week's "Level Two" will look at games linked to "Rocky" and "Star Wars," as well as game characters who transcended Hollywood fame - little pixel critters named Super Mario, Luigi and Zelda.
You don't have to be a gamer to find this fascinating. "Rise" can be appreciated as nostalgia, history, culture, technology and - above all - business. It makes a strong case that no study of the past 30 years is complete without a thorough grasp of video games and what they have wrought.
¢ Guest soloist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Daniel Barenboim perform at the Israel Philharmonic 70th Anniversary Gala Concert under the direction of Zubin Mehta on "Great Performances" (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings).
Tonight's other highlights
¢ A scratch-'n'-sniff fatality on "Pushing Daisies" (7 p.m., ABC). Paul Reubens guest stars.
¢ "Mythbusters" (8 p.m., Discovery) puts pedal to the metal of a metaphor when they see how easy it really is to shoot fish in a barrel.
¢ A wedding proves fatal for one groom on "CSI: NY" (9 p.m., CBS).
¢ The Darlings come between Nick and his family Thanksgiving on "Dirty Sexy Money" (9 p.m., ABC).
Am I the only person who considers "Singin' in the Rain" (7 p.m., TCM) one of the most overrated movies of all time? As musicals go, I prefer "The Band Wagon" (9 p.m., TCM).