In Search of America
Koch Entertainment // Unrated // $29.98 // June 8, 2004
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted July 22, 2004
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The movie

"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.

Final thoughts

In 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. Skip it.

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