"In Search of America" is perhaps a bit of a misnomer for
this program, because the filmmakers have pretty clearly already
found it, and aren't interested in exploring any topic that will have
viewers actually questioning the American way of life. The six-part
program, hosted by Peter Jennings, purports to tackle a variety of
issues around the country, from a conflict between state and federal
jurisdiction in Idaho to racism in Indiana, but it's a consistently
shallow treatment that seems hesitant to present any point of view
that might make its viewers the least bit uncomfortable about, or
critical of, our society.
In Search of America is a remarkably self-absorbed program,
aptly represented by the fact that nobody appears to consider that
"America" really includes Canada and Mexico. Oh, we were
talking about the United States of America? Would it have been so
hard to say "United States," then? Apparently so. But then
again, this is a program whose focus maps directly to the typical
U.S. citizen's sense of place in the world: one in which other
countries exist only to send illegal immigrants ("Homeland"),
or to serve as markets for U.S.-made junk food ("Headquarters").
Note that there's not the faintest hint of self-awareness in this
program, nor is any interest shown in exploring the trickier bits of
the U.S. self-image. After all, that might have led to the issues
becoming more complex and harder to define, and might have encouraged
the viewer to think.
For all that it theoretically probes controversial issues, In
Search of America is curiously bland; behind the presentation of
the conflicts in each episode is a glib sense that everything will
work out for the best, because, after all, this is America. The
topics are divided neatly into black and white, even when they don't
necessarily lend themselves to that kind of division, and Jennings
obliges by interviewing people on each side of the divide that's been
created, whether that's pro-wolf and anti-wolf in "Call of the
Wild" or creationism vs. evolution in "God's Country."
It's notable that well-educated experts are thin on the ground here,
and get less on-screen time than Average Joe on the street. That's
fine if the object of the program is to capture popular opinion, but
it falls short in anything that pretends to explore the actual
content. I suspect that part of the reason that the "experts"
are restricted to miniature sound bites is that, if they were given
time to explain their point in more detail, viewers would realize
that they tend to be more convincing than Average Joe... and Average
Joe would start looking like someone who is basing his argument on
short-term self-interest, prejudice, and poor reasoning. In a program
that seems determined not to be the slightest bit critical, this was
evidently to be avoided.
The happy-happy approach becomes a bit surreal at times, such as the
scene in which Jennings describes a book-burning party in the same
golly-gee-whiz tone that he uses for a high school play. How cute,
how quaint, that these people are tossing videos and books on a
bonfire because they don't like the content! Now let's move on to the
next photo opportunity before the viewers start to think about what
that kind of civic attitude might lead to.
I've refrained from calling this a documentary, because the best word
to describe this program is "vacuous." There's just not
much here. It's just a show-and-tell about a few current issues,
focused on particular locations where these issues are being played
out, and with far more "show" than "tell." This
is disposable journalism: the program is dated (Jennings refers to
"last year's" attack on the World Trade Center) and divided
into neat capsules for convenient consumption between commercials,
complete with "When we come back..." closing remarks.
Jennings may be a staple of television news, but the rhythms of
intonation that make every sentence equally laden with importance (or
the lack thereof) in a news report falter here, where not every
thought can be summed up neatly in a sentence or two. In Search of
America has a nice concept, but the filmmakers were too afraid of
actually finding America. In the America I live in, book-burnings are
scary, not cute, and students arriving to college thinking that the
Earth is only a few thousand years old is something to worry about,
not to shrug off as a quirk of a conservative community.
We really don't need a self-congratulatory program like In Search
of America to tell us how wonderful America is, what a rich
history and tradition we have (carefully avoiding comparing it to
other nations), and how all the little conflicts and issues are
simply inspiring examples of how we have such diversity of opinion.
It's a program that's intended to make us feel good about being
American... and clearly, the filmmakers believe that taking a serious
look at the issues, and actually raising difficult ideas, won't make
us feel good.
In Search of America is a two-DVD set, with three 42-minute
episodes on each disc.
The image quality of In Search of America is respectable, with
higher-quality interview footage mixed in with understandably
lower-quality news footage. Overall, the image is clean and bright,
with natural-looking colors and good contrast. The program is
presented in its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack offers a reasonable listening experience for
the program. The participants' voices were not always as clear as
they could have been, but on the whole it's easy to understand.
English subtitles are available.
There are no special features on this set.
Search of America is a vacuous piece of journalistic fluff that
really doesn't belong on DVD alongside real documentaries. The only
merit to the program is that it takes an interesting approach,
focusing on particular national issues as they're played out in
specific communities. However, the coverage is fluffy and seems
designed to make viewers feel good about "America" rather
than actually present a thoughtful view of the nation and society.