The BEST Episodes of American Experience

Every episode ever - ranked by fan votes!

Last Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Network: PBS

Since 1988, PBS has broadcast a series that focuses on the history of the United States and what has made it unique. Called The American Experience (now shortened to simply American Experience), the program examines the people, events, technology, and natural resources that have shaped the country. Hosted by David McCullough until 2002 and narrated by a number of well-known personalities - The American Experience uses historians and authors, period images and film, music, dramatic re-enactments, and contemporary context to set the stage for its topics. The series continues to this day with a variable number of installments produced each year. Episodes are generally 60 minutes in length, but some longer episodes and multi-part series have also been produced. The show airs at different days and times on local PBS stations. Though The American Experience has used many films from independent film makers and has been assisted by various PBS stations throughout the country, it has always been spearheaded by WGBH in Boston.

The Donner Party

#1 - The Donner Party

Season 5 - Episode 3 - Aired Oct 28, 1992

Tragic tale of families attempting a short-cut passage to California in the 1840s, with narration of their life-and-death struggle taken from their own journals.

star 10.00
29 votes
Directors: Ric Burns
Writers: Ric Burns
Secrets of a Master Builder

#2 - Secrets of a Master Builder

Season 13 - Episode 3 - Aired Oct 30, 2000

The contributions of James B. Eads in understanding and altering the great Mississippi River during the second half of the 19th century.

star 10.00
29 votes
George H.W. Bush (1)

#3 - George H.W. Bush (1)

Season 20 - Episode 13 - Aired May 5, 2008

A detailed chronicle of the Bush family and the life of the 41st President of the United States - from World War II to the Gulf War and beyond.

star 10.00
1 votes
Directors: Austin Hoyt
Writers: Austin Hoyt
Civilian Conservation Corps

#4 - Civilian Conservation Corps

Season 22 - Episode 1 - Aired Nov 2, 2009

FDR establishes a back-to-work program that generates employment and addresses some of the nation's environmental needs during the Great Depression.

star 10.00
29 votes
Directors: Robert Stone
Writers: Robert Stone
 The Abolitionists: 1838-1854

#5 - The Abolitionists: 1838-1854

Season 25 - Episode 2 - Aired Jan 15, 2013

See how the activities of the five principals intersect and affect the anti-slavery movement.

star 10.00
1 votes
Directors: Rob Rapley
Writers: Rob Rapley, Paul Taylor
1964

#6 - 1964

Season 26 - Episode 2 - Aired Jan 14, 2014

Recalling 1964, a pivotal year in U.S. history. While the Beatles captured the imaginations of the nation's youth, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, unveiled his vision of a "Great Society" and squared off against Barry Goldwater in the presidential election. Also covered: the murders of three Freedom Summer volunteers; and the influence of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." Based in part on Jon Margolis' "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964."

star 10.00
29 votes
The Amish: Shunned

#7 - The Amish: Shunned

Season 26 - Episode 3 - Aired Feb 4, 2014

Filmed over the course of twelve months, The Amish: Shunned follows seven former members of the Amish community as they reflect on their decisions to leave one of the most closed and tightly-knit communities in the United States. Estranged from family, the ex-Amish find themselves struggling to understand and make their way in modern America. Interwoven through the stories are the voices of Amish men and women who remain staunchly loyal to their traditions and faith. They explain the importance of obedience, the strong ties that bind their communities together, and the pain they endure when a loved one falls away.

star 10.00
29 votes
Directors: Callie T. Wiser
Writers: Callie T. Wiser
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

#8 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Season 26 - Episode 4 - Aired Feb 11, 2014

Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, better known as Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, form the Wild Bunch gang and pull off the longest string of holdups in history.

star 10.00
29 votes
Directors: John Maggio
Writers: John Maggio
War of the Worlds

#9 - War of the Worlds

Season 25 - Episode 6 - Aired Oct 29, 2013

Shortly after 8 p.m. on October 30th, 1938, the voice of a panicked radio announcer broke in with a news bulletin reporting strange explosions taking place on the planet Mars, followed minutes later by a report that Martians had landed in the tiny town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. It turned out to be H.G. Wells' classic 'The War of the Worlds', performed by 23-year-old Orson Welles. Although most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, the next day's headlines reported that thousands of others plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack. 75 years after the original radio broadcast, 'American Experience' examines the elements that came together to create one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.

star 10.00
29 votes
Writers: Michelle Ferrari
JFK (Part 1)

#10 - JFK (Part 1)

Season 25 - Episode 7 - Aired Nov 11, 2013

JFK presents a fresh look at an enigmatic man who remains one of the nation's most beloved and mourned leaders, John F. Kennedy. It offers a new perspective on his private life, his relationship with his wife, his close connection to his brother, Robert, and his bond with his father. JFK also reevaluates his strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office as he navigated some of the most explosive events of the mid-twentieth century.

star 10.00
29 votes
Directors: Susan Bellows
Writers: Mark Zwonitzer
JFK (Part 2)

#11 - JFK (Part 2)

Season 25 - Episode 8 - Aired Nov 12, 2013

JFK presents a fresh look at an enigmatic man who remains one of the nation's most beloved and mourned leaders, John F. Kennedy. It offers a new perspective on his private life, his relationship with his wife, his close connection to his brother, Robert, and his bond with his father. JFK also reevaluates his strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office as he navigated some of the most explosive events of the mid-twentieth century.

star 10.00
29 votes
Directors: Susan Bellows
Writers: Mark Zwonitzer
Walt Disney (1)

#12 - Walt Disney (1)

Season 27 - Episode 8 - Aired Sep 14, 2015

In 1966, the year Walt Disney died, 240 million people saw a Disney movie, 100 million tuned in to a Disney television program, 80 million bought Disney merchandise, and close to seven million visited Disneyland. Few creative figures before or since have held such a long-lasting place in American life and popular culture.

star 10.00
29 votes
Walt Disney (2)

#13 - Walt Disney (2)

Season 27 - Episode 9 - Aired Sep 15, 2015

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE offers an unprecedented look at the life and legacy of one of America’s most enduring and influential storytellers in Walt Disney, a new two-part, four-hour film premiering Monday and Tuesday, September 14-15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS

star 10.00
29 votes
The Boys of '36

#14 - The Boys of '36

Season 28 - Episode 6 - Aired Aug 2, 2016

A group of working-class boys from the University of Washington, in the United States, surprise a nation when they capture the gold medal in rowing at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin.

star 10.00
29 votes
Directors: Margaret Grossi
Writers: Aaron R. Cohen
Freedom Summer

#15 - Freedom Summer

Season 26 - Episode 6 - Aired Jun 24, 2014

In the summer of 1964, more than 700 students join with organizers and local blacks to canvas for voter registration, create Freedom Schools and establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

star 9.78
32 votes
Directors: Stanley Nelson
Writers: Stanley Nelson
The Poisoner's Handbook

#16 - The Poisoner's Handbook

Season 26 - Episode 1 - Aired Jan 7, 2014

The story of New York City's first medical examiner, Charles Norris (1867-1935), and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler (1883-1968), who pioneered the use of forensic science to explain violent and suspicious deaths. Included: remarks from renowned medical examiners Marcella Fierro and Michael Baden; and author Deborah Blum ("The Poisoner's Handbook"). Oliver Platt narrates.

star 9.71
38 votes
Directors: Rob Rapley
Writers:
The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

#17 - The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

Season 26 - Episode 5 - Aired Feb 18, 2014

In 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad successfully accomplished the enormous engineering feat of building tunnels under New York City's Hudson and East Rivers, connecting the railroad to New York and New England, knitting together the entire eastern half of the United States. The tunnels terminated in what was one of the greatest architectural achievements of its time, Pennsylvania Station. Penn Station covered nearly eight acres, extended two city blocks, and housed one of the largest public spaces in the world. But just 53 years after the station’s opening, the monumental building that was supposed to last forever, to herald and represent the American Empire, was slated to be destroyed.

star 9.57
37 votes
Writers: Randall MacLowry
Cold War Roadshow

#18 - Cold War Roadshow

Season 26 - Episode 7 - Aired Nov 18, 2014

In the fall of 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev toured the United States for 12 days at the invitation of President Dwight Eisenhower. For both men, the visit was an opportunity to halt the escalating threats of the Cold War and potentially chart a new course toward peaceful coexistence. For the American press, it was the media blockbuster story of the year.

star 9.20
5 votes
Writers: Robert Stone
Ulysses S. Grant (1): The Warrior

#19 - Ulysses S. Grant (1): The Warrior

Season 14 - Episode 11 - Aired Apr 1, 2002

The military career and troubled administration of the 15th President of the United States.

star 9.00
29 votes
Directors: Adriana Bosch
Writers: Adriana Bosch, Elizabeth Deane
Chicago: City of the Century (2): The Revolution Has Begun

#20 - Chicago: City of the Century (2): The Revolution Has Begun

Season 15 - Episode 4 - Aired Jan 14, 2003

City of the Century chronicles Chicago's dramatic transformation from a swampy frontier town of fur traders and Native Americans to a massive metropolis that was the quintessential American city of the nineteenth century. The film tells how innovation, ingenuity, determination and ruthlessness created empires in what was a marshy wasteland and describes the hardships endured by millions of working men and women whose labor helped a capitalist class reinvent the way America did business. Along the way, this program revels in Chicago's triumphs -- among them the architectural experimentation that gave the city one of the world's most distinctive skylines -- and delves into the heart of Chicago's painful struggles. Bringing to life the Windy City's rich mixture of cultures, its writers and journalists, its political corruption and labor upheavals, this film bears witness to the creation of one of the most dynamic and vibrant cities in the world.

star 9.00
29 votes
Writers: Austin Hoyt
Chicago: City of the Century (3): Battle for Chicago

#21 - Chicago: City of the Century (3): Battle for Chicago

Season 15 - Episode 5 - Aired Jan 15, 2003

City of the Century chronicles Chicago's dramatic transformation from a swampy frontier town of fur traders and Native Americans to a massive metropolis that was the quintessential American city of the nineteenth century. The film tells how innovation, ingenuity, determination and ruthlessness created empires in what was a marshy wasteland and describes the hardships endured by millions of working men and women whose labor helped a capitalist class reinvent the way America did business. Along the way, this program revels in Chicago's triumphs -- among them the architectural experimentation that gave the city one of the world's most distinctive skylines -- and delves into the heart of Chicago's painful struggles. Bringing to life the Windy City's rich mixture of cultures, its writers and journalists, its political corruption and labor upheavals, this film bears witness to the creation of one of the most dynamic and vibrant cities in the world.

star 9.00
29 votes
Writers: Austin Hoyt
Dolley Madison

#22 - Dolley Madison

Season 22 - Episode 4 - Aired Mar 1, 2010

Tony Award-winner Eve Best stars as Dolley Madison, America’s “first First Lady”; Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays is James Madison.

star 9.00
29 votes
Directors: Muffie Meyer
Writers: Ronald Blumer
Triangle Fire

#23 - Triangle Fire

Season 23 - Episode 8 - Aired Feb 28, 2011

It was the deadliest workplace accident in New York City’s history. A dropped match on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sparked a fire that killed over a hundred innocent people trapped inside. The private industry of the American factory would never be the same.

star 8.88
33 votes
Directors: Jamila Wignot
Writers: Mark Zwonitzer
Annie Oakley

#24 - Annie Oakley

Season 18 - Episode 12 - Aired May 8, 2006

Chronicle of the amazing markswoman, her life, the discovery of her talent, and the promotion of her career.

star 8.67
3 votes
Directors: Riva Freifeld
Writers: Ken Chowder
The Big Burn

#25 - The Big Burn

Season 27 - Episode 4 - Aired Feb 3, 2015

In the summer of 1910, hundreds of wildfires raged across the Northern Rockies. By the time it was all over, more than three million acres had burned and at least 78 firefighters were dead. It was the largest fire in American history. "Big Burn" premieres February 3, 2015 on PBS American Experience.

star 8.67
6 votes
Directors: Stephen Ives
Writers: Stephen Ives