I have a confession: I rarely remember, when turning on the television, that PBS is an option.
This is ludicrous, as I am a person whose four years at her liberal arts college were spent studying Russian and French literature and who now writes professionally about television; PBS should be my siren song. It is doubly ludicrous when you consider that the metro region I live in is served by not one, not two, but three PBS stations. (Hello, WETA, WMPT, and WHUT!) Plus, I really like PBS. Not just because Masterpiece consistently mounts the most soothing period fare (and Masterpiece Mystery, the best reason to fondly remember Edward Gorey), or because Ken Burns is always dependable for a good dozen hours of cultural and historical edification, or because The Great British Baking Show has become the one show you can for sure turn on with any family member, at any time, for something safe to marvel over, but because media funded by the public and beholden to no commercial—or worse, secret—interests is desperately necessary for our democracy to survive.
It’s just, all the channels surrounding PBS are so loud and shiny and demanding, and the muscle memory of clicking over to all the content-flush streamers on my Roku so strong, that even broadcasting over three channels, PBS can hardly get a thoughtful word in edgewise—and that’s not even taking mobile watching into consideration.
Enter Passport, PBS’ very own subscription streaming platform service, which makes it as easy to access tens of thousands of hours of PBS programming on any smart TV, computer or mobile device as it is to queue up the next season of whatever severely underlit Marvel show. You want to catch up on all those critically acclaimed period piece mini-series that came and went before you found time to watch them? Passport’s got you. You want to zone out to Nature while you gather your strength for another day of fighting for a more just society? Passport’s on it. You want to finally, finally binge Downton Abbey, now that any random fan you meet on the street is unlikely to accost you for being behind the zeitgeist? Passport has your back!
Now, if you’re a fan of PBS who also has an Amazon Prime account, you’re reading this thinking, “Prime Video already has just about everything PBS has ever aired—why in the world would I pay for what would basically amount to a duplicate subscription fee?” And sure, fair point: Like everything else in the present moment, Amazon has cornered the market on most things PBS. For those few titles you can’t find it on Prime—Bletchley Circle, The Great British Baking Show, Happy Valley—Netflix has often picked up the slack. So, that’s two subscriptions that you are probably already paying for. Two subscriptions… to two astronomically gargantuan corporations whose every real interest is in profit, not in community.
PBS, which exists as a central organization but survives on the strength of the national network of local public television stations, is only about community. And your subscription to Passport, generally around $5/month (the rate varies by region), doubles as a sustaining membership to your local public station. Better yet, flip that around: Your sustaining membership to a force for education and possibility in your own community comes with the benefit of access to Passport’s streaming service.
Your mileage may vary, but as much as I love the bold experimentation the deep coffers of Amazon and Netflix allow for, any time I’m given the opportunity to hold their total takeover of our private lives at bay, I’m going to seize it. Plus, while Prime and Netflix have most of the PBS properties you might be looking for, they don’t have all of them. And I love you: I want you to have all of them. Or, at least, all of them that PBS has the streaming rights to at any given moment.
So here I am, aided by local PBS member stations across the country, ready to guide you through one more streaming service.
Now, the fact that Passport exists as a benefit of individual station membership makes a guide like this a bit tricky. Navigate to any station website, and you will see that the spread of shows and specials offered—especially those of the more local or community-based variety—will differ. In the D.C. region, many of the non-marquee series focus on the local food scene and the cultural history of the District. In Wyoming, there are series on state politics, Wyoming outdoors culture, and life on the Wind River Reservation. Etc., etc.
For the most part, though, every Passport membership comes with access to the same tentpole series, and while there are more than I could possibly list here and hold anyone’s interest, I still want to hit the highlights of what is available in each of the network’s major categories right now, in the early fall of 2018. (Due to licensing agreements, there is no central Passport library, but if you want to see the list of all the shows PBS has ever aired, that can be found here, but you will have to check each entry individually to see which are available to the public, which are behind the Passport paywall, and which are not available at all.)
Editor’s note: Titles in bold are currently streaming only on Passport.
Best Current Bets:
Poldark, Downton Abbey, The Durrells in Corfu, Victoria, Indian Summers, Mercy Street
For hardcore Masterpiece fans, this is the one category in which Passport may fall slightly short of expectations, as many of the franchise’s most commercially popular series—Call the Midwife, Last Tango in Halifax, The Paradise, and Upstairs Downstairs among them—are currently unavailable on the service. As streaming agreements are always in flux, that may very well change, but in the meantime, there are still plenty of heavy-hitting dramas left to keep you snuggled up through the chill fall nights. This list includes Downton, of course, but also the soon-returning Poldark (of the infamously hot shirtless scything scene in Season One) and the woefully short-lived Mercy Street, whose humane complexity and reminder of what it means to be patriotically just is sorely needed right now.
Best Current Bets:
Frankie Drake Mysteries, Prime Suspect: Tennison, Unforgotten, Grantchester, The Tunnel
As in the previous category, there are a number of notably large holes on Passport’s Mystery shelves, though here what is missing is generally earlier seasons of beloved shows (Sherlock, Endeavor, Inspector Lewis) rather than entire series. And since I don’t anticipate many people dropping Netflix or Prime in favor of Passport, and those earlier seasons generally exist on one or the other of those platforms, I’m not too worried for you. In any case, you have the Paste-approved The Tunnel available in its entirety, as well as exclusive access to the frothy Canadian Roaring Twenties all-female private detective joint, Frankie Drake Mysteries. (Think Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, with a bit less gravity and way less sex but also much better racial diversity.) It’s currently dropping new episodes on Passport every Monday—just in time to temper the rage headache the start of each new week brings these days.
Best Current Bets:
The Miniaturist, Anne of Green Gables, Dark Angel, Death Comes to Pemberley, Jamestown, Little Women, Murder on the Homefront, Northanger Abbey, Pollyanna, Rebecca, To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, Wuthering Heights
Compared to everything else on this list, Masterpiece’s frequent miniseries and movies-turned-limited-series seem to be the least likely to appear on other platforms. Several of the splashier offerings from the last few years are found here, including the recent adaptation of Little Women, to which Paste’s Keri Lumm gave a warm review, as well as the just-wrapped The Miniaturist (the first episode of which is only available at the moment via Passport), but it is the older, harder-to-find literary adaptations that make the service especially worth it in this case. Anne of Green Gables is an especial delight, if you want something light and fun. If you want to see a woman’s rage and play out past all reasonable limit and turn to sociopathic narcissism, though, try Dark Angel.
Best Current Bets:
The Great British Baking Show, No Passport Required (yes, it’s very ironic), The French Chef with Julia Child, Coffee: The Drink the Changed America, Food: Delicious Science
The Great British Baking Show may be what lures you in, and Marcus Samuelsson’s immigrant experience anthology that warms your heart, but it will be the exclusive access to the 48 episodes of Julia Child’s classic series, The French Chef that will feel like the greatest food TV treasure Passport has to give. Julia Child! In your pocket, whenever you want a food-y pop culture hug!
Best Current Bets:
Antiques Road Show, Finding Your Roots, Great Performances, The Great American Read, a rotating selection from Ken Burns, Queen: Rock the World, Victorian Slum House, We’ll Meet Again, Vicious
Anyone who has ever watched even a few hours of PBS knows just what a mixed bag its programming personality is. Which makes sense! It’s for the public, after all, and we’re a funny, clever, curious, intemperate mess. So of course in this category you will find all the decades-old documentary collections like Great Performances and American Experience alongside the cinematically educational classics like NOVA, Nature, and POV right next to Antiques Road Show and everything Ann Curry, Ken Burns, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have to offer—but also you’ll find standalone Queen and Richard Pryor documentaries, an anthology of themed conversations on America’s favorite novel tracking the national debate to choose The One in real time, a reality series sending Brits off to live in Victorian slum conditions, and a short-lived half-hour multicam sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a sniping old gay couple who spend their days hitting on their hot young lodger, Iwan Rheon. Many of those series you can find elsewhere, but not that last one—it is only available on Passport. Because, sure! Why not!
At this point I’m just keeping you from the inevitable. So go, be a responsible consumer of media, donate to your local PBS member station and log on to Passport now. And while you’re at it, maybe make a sustaining donation in your favorite PBS-loving older relative’s name, and get them set up to stream whenever they want, too. Holiday gift, sorted.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.