The Best Episodes of American Experience

Last Updated: Nov 4, 2018

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.

Secrets of a Master Builder

#1 - Secrets of a Master Builder

Season 13 - Episode 3

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
1 votes
 The Abolitionists: 1838-1854

#2 - The Abolitionists: 1838-1854

Season 25 - Episode 2

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
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Civilian Conservation Corps

#3 - Civilian Conservation Corps

Season 22 - Episode 1

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
1 votes
Directors: Robert Stone
Writers: Robert Stone
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 The Abolitionists: 1854-Emancipation and Victory

#4 - The Abolitionists: 1854-Emancipation and Victory

Season 25 - Episode 3

Examine the forces leading to war and to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

star 10.00
1 votes
Directors: Rob Rapley
Writers: Rob Rapley, Paul Taylor
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Soundtrack for a Revolution

#5 - Soundtrack for a Revolution

Season 23 - Episode 11

The story of the American civil rights movement told through the freedom songs protesters sang on picket lines, in mass meetings, in paddy wagons and in jail cells as they fought for justice and equality. The music enabled African-Americans to sing words they could not say and helped protesters face brutal aggression with dignity. With heart-wrenching interviews, dramatic images and contemporary performances by top artists, including John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean and The Roots.

star 10.00
1 votes
Writers: Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman
George H.W. Bush (1)

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

Season 20 - Episode 13

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
Walt Whitman

#7 - Walt Whitman

Season 20 - Episode 11

A chronicle of the poetry of Whitman through the lens of his personality and background - with a discussion of both the literary praise and criticism of his work.

star 10.00
1 votes
Writers: Mark Zwonitzer
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New York (3): Sunshine and Shadow 1865-1898

#8 - New York (3): Sunshine and Shadow 1865-1898

Season 12 - Episode 3

Now the spotlight shines on the growth, glamour and grief of New York during America's giddy postwar "Gilded Age." Exploring the incomparable wealth of the robber barons and the unabashed corruption of political leaders, such as Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed, the episode examines the era when the expansion of wealth and poverty -- and the schism between them -- built to a crescendo. The program ends as the city itself dramatically expands its boundaries, annexing Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island into a single massive metropolis -- Greater New York.

star 10.00
1 votes
Directors: Ric Burns
Writers: Ric Burns, James Sanders
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New York (2): Order and Disorder 1825-1865

#9 - New York (2): Order and Disorder 1825-1865

Season 12 - Episode 2

Already established as America's premier port, New York City swelled into the nation's greatest industrial metropolis as a massive wave of German and Irish immigration turned the city into one of the world's most complex urban environments, bringing with it a host of new social problems. Episode Two reveals how the city's artists, innovators and leaders, from poet Walt Whitman to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (the designers of Central Park) grappled with the city's growing conflicts -- which culminated in the catastrophic Civil War Draft Riots of 1863.

star 10.00
1 votes
Directors: Ric Burns
Writers: Ric Burns, James Sanders
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Silicon Valley

#10 - Silicon Valley

Season 25 - Episode 5

Led by physicist Robert Noyce, Fairchild Semiconductor began as a start-up company whose radical innovations would help make the United States a leader in both space exploration and the personal computer revolution, changing the way the world works, plays, and communicates. Noyce's invention of the microchip ultimately re-shaped the future, launching the world into the Information Age.

star 9.67
6 votes
Writers: Randall MacLowry
Dolley Madison

#11 - Dolley Madison

Season 22 - Episode 4

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

star 9.33
3 votes
Directors: Muffie Meyer
Writers: Ronald Blumer
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Cold War Roadshow

#12 - Cold War Roadshow

Season 26 - Episode 7

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
JFK (Part 2)

#13 - JFK (Part 2)

Season 25 - Episode 8

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 9.20
5 votes
Directors: Susan Bellows
Writers: Mark Zwonitzer
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The Donner Party

#14 - The Donner Party

Season 5 - Episode 3

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 9.00
3 votes
Directors: Ric Burns
Writers: Ric Burns
Summer of Love

#15 - Summer of Love

Season 19 - Episode 12

A chronicle of Haight Ashbury in the summer of 1967 and the peak of American youth counterculture.

star 9.00
1 votes
Writers: Gail Dolgin, Vincente Franco
Chicago: City of the Century (3): Battle for Chicago

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

Season 15 - Episode 5

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
1 votes
Writers: Austin Hoyt
New York (8): The Center of the World

#17 - New York (8): The Center of the World

Season 16 - Episode 1

The eighth episode of filmmaker Ric Burns' award-winning series New York: A Documentary Film examines the rise and fall of the World Trade Center -- from its conception in the post-World War II economic boom, through its controversial construction in the 1960s and 1970s, to its tragic demise in the fall of 2001 and extraordinary response of the city in its aftermath.

star 9.00
2 votes
Directors: Ric Burns
Writers: Ric Burns, James Sanders
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Chicago: City of the Century (2): The Revolution Has Begun

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

Season 15 - Episode 4

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
1 votes
Writers: Austin Hoyt
Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided

#19 - Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided

Season 23 - Episode 13

The marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln was long and turbulent, and knew many trials, including the loss of two children. Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided weaves together the lives of the two Lincolns, drawing us into their long-vanished world.

star 9.00
1 votes
Directors: David Grubin
Writers:
Mary Pickford

#20 - Mary Pickford

Season 17 - Episode 7

The life and career of one of the first "superstars" of the American screen.

star 9.00
2 votes
Directors: Sue Williams
Writers: Sue Williams
Abraham And Mary Lincoln: A House Divided (1): Ambition

#21 - Abraham And Mary Lincoln: A House Divided (1): Ambition

Season 13 - Episode 7

The story of the Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln's childhoods and their courtship is told.

star 9.00
1 votes
Directors: David Grubin
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward, David Grubin
Nixon (3): The Fall

#22 - Nixon (3): The Fall

Season 3 - Episode 4

Chronicle of the 37th President - from his earliest ambitions to his innovative foreign policy and paranoia of perceived rivals.

star 9.00
1 votes
Writers: Geoffrey C. Ward
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Ulysses S. Grant (1): The Warrior

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

Season 14 - Episode 11

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

star 9.00
1 votes
Directors: Adriana Bosch
Writers: Elizabeth Deane, Adriana Bosch
The Poisoner's Handbook

#24 - The Poisoner's Handbook

Season 26 - Episode 1

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 8.89
9 votes
Directors: Rob Rapley
Writers:
JFK (Part 1)

#25 - JFK (Part 1)

Season 25 - Episode 7

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 8.83
6 votes
Directors: Susan Bellows
Writers: Mark Zwonitzer
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