“American Masters” (8 p.m. Sunday, PBS) will spend three and a half hours over two nights profiling comedian, writer, amateur musician and filmmaker Woody Allen. Before the film’s credits end, we hear from a parade of talents who have worked with Allen over four decades, from Diane Keaton to Scarlett Johansson, Mariel Hemingway, Sean Penn and Owen Wilson. Comedian Chris Rock sums up everybody’s feelings when he marvels that Allen has remained creative, active, prolific and, for the most part, relevant for 40-plus years.
Filmmaker Robert Weide got rare access to the busy and secretive filmmaker, and we also hear from Allen’s younger sister Letty Aronson and longtime manager Jack Rollins.
The most interesting moments of “Woody Allen” concern his youth and formative years in Brooklyn, a period that Allen has mined for material in films from “Annie Hall” to “Radio Days.”
Allen hadn’t even graduated from high school when he established himself as regular joke writer for newspaper columnists and radio performers. His managers pushed Allen into public performance, something that didn’t come natural to the reclusive writer. Nightclub notoriety would lead to a writing assignment for “Casino Royale,” a 1967 comedy he found so botched by studio interference that he insisted he’d never work on a movie that he couldn’t control as writer and director. He’s been doing just that since “Take the Money and Run” (1969), making him the undisputed master of independent cinema.
Sunday’s airing follows Allen’s work from birth, through his 10-year run of success during the 1970s. Monday’s concluding chapter deals with the hits and misses of the last 30 years.
Some may dismiss or avoid the film for its failure to moralize about the Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi scandal. If “Allen” has a fault, it’s that it rarely tries to place his body of work in a larger cultural context or explain why his films of the 1970s seemed to resonate with audiences in ways that many of his later works do not.
A subject like Woody Allen deserves a discussion on how popular culture has changed, how Allen’s beloved New York has been transformed and how movies and the movie-going audience have evolved in the past 40 years. For the record, Allen still writes everything —scripts, short stories and humor pieces —on the same manual typewriter he bought for himself with joke-writing money, more than a half-century ago.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Alton Brown hosts “Thanksgiving Live!” (11 a.m., Food) and fields questions about meal preparation with the help of fellow chefs Ted Allen, Sunny Anderson, Anne Burrell, Melissa d’Arabian, Bobby Flay, Alex Guarnaschelli and Rachael Ray.
• Scheduled on “60 Minutes” (6 p.m., CBS): Grover Norquist, Christine Lagarde and Taylor Swift.
• The Giants host the Eagles on “Sunday Night Football” (7 p.m., NBC).