Whats Worth Watching: ‘Blackout’ on PBS’s ‘American Experience’ for Tuesday, July 14

1977 Blackout Power Failure
Dan Farrell/NY Daily News/Getty Images
1977 Blackout Power Failure - Blackout- shows NYC skyline from Queens during the power blackout. Lights glow in a midtown Waterside Con Ed plant as traffic passes on East Side Drive. (Photo By: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

American Experience, “Blackout” (Tuesday, July 14, 9/8c, PBS)

I still have vivid memories of the August 2003 blackout that paralyzed much of the Northeast, including my adopted city of New York, where thankfully I was working from home in my 19th-floor apartment that day when I eventually realized there was a reason the TV wasn’t working. Looking out that night over an eerily dark cityscape that is usually illuminated with light 24/7, observing pockets of people peacefully celebrating on lower rooftops, that mental image provides quite a contrast to the urban chaos depicted in Blackout. This American Experience documentary vividly relives the events from 35 years ago on July 13, 1977, when a lightning strike during a violent thunderstorm triggered a power outage engulfing a financially troubled city and its roughly 7 million inhabitants into utter darkness during a sweltering heat wave.

“Where did Brooklyn go?” a wine steward recalls thinking, watching atop the World Trade Center in the fabled Windows on the World before that restaurant also went dark. From those now-legendary heights to the mean streets of neglected, impoverished boroughs where looting and arson ran rampant, Blackout presents a stark sociological snapshot of a city divided by class, with lawless anarchy erupting as the social order breaks down. “Electricity is kind of a keystone for civility,” says a Con Ed executive entrusted with getting the lights back on. Blackout reminds us how fragile that social contract can be. Watch this with the lights on.