PBS/OZY Series The Contenders Premieres Tonight

A new series seeks to understand elections past.

Much is made about this election’s historic and unprecedented nature, in ways good, and bad, and good for television. But as 2016 is placed and judged against the sweep of history, the sense of what came before, what elections and campaigns of the past actually looked and felt like, is often missing.

The Contenders – 16 for ’16, a joint project between PBS and OZY Media that premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on PBS, seeks to explore that history before the current election becomes past.

The premiere episode devotes half its time to Shirley Chisholm‘s candidacy and half to Sen. John McCain–looking at both his 2000 and 2008 campaigns. Each subsequent episode will feature two candidates, often one Republican and one Democratic, who in some way represent a similar idea.

For host Carlos Watson, Chisholm and McCain were both “people who had spoken openly,” as he explained in a Q&A following the New York premiere of the show last night. Q&A particpant Robert Gottlieb, who had been Chisholm’s student coordinator, wasn’t so sold on the similarities.

But it would have been hard to compare Chisholm, the first Black female major-party primary contender, to anybody. She was singular–for her time and for the symbol she came to be. As Fordham Professor Christina Greer explained during the Q&A, “In the 70s, she was able to try and tackle race and gender, just so that one day someone ran, whether it be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, they can look to her as a beacon. Everyone knows, in any origin story, there are always people who have sacrificed before you make it.”

That is now. Back then, said Gottlieb, “Her victory was going to be enough delegate votes so she could go to Frank Mankiewicz who is working with [George] McGovern at the time and somehow affect the platform, as if the platform ever means a damn thing in politics. But her view was to move the marker just a little bit. That was the victory. Unfortunately, she at the end didn’t feel she had achieved that goal. She just didn’t win enough delegates to be a power broker at the convention.”

But Chisholm was neither just symbolic legacy nor historic failure. “History is always kind to people who are truthful to themselves,” said Greer, “so we have Barbara Lee, we have all these people who worked on her campaign that have gone off in politics and done amazing things.”

“What’s past is prologue,” as the Shakespearian quote goes. The Contenders reminds us why this is true as ever.