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I believe it was President Andrew Shepherd—the Michael Douglas character in Rob Reiner’s The American President—who said, “America isn’t easy. You’ve got to want it.” Sure, it’s a line from a fictional character, but the ideology behind the words is what drives ABC News Presents: In Search of America, a six-part documentary series hosted by ABC anchor Peter Jennings. The series, now available on DVD from Koch Vision, explores the extremely complicated pursuit of both unified and individual freedoms in America as told by its members.
Each episode examines a different topic, with the series as a whole designed to add up to a small slice (a truly comprehensive look would be much longer than six parts) of the sticky mess that is democracy, and the challenges we face as we continue to construct this nation. The following shows are included in this set:
• “Call of the Wild”
An Idaho community debates with the federal government over the protection and habitation of a species of wild wolves.
• “The Stage”
A high school’s production of Hair raises questions about political protest and social responsibility for a group of Colorado teenagers.
Salt Lake citizens, faced with the presence of illegal immigrants, confront their perceptions about national security and what they consider to be a threat the American way of life.
• “God’s Country”
A southern community deals with issues of religion and morality in contemporary America.
The global spread of American business and culture is demonstrated when a Texas snack food company makes plans for expansion.
• “The Great Divide”
The legacy of American slavery and the racial divide are examined in Gary, Indiana.
In Search of America is surprisingly effective, both in its ability to captivate and to spark thought (which would hopefully lead to discussion) in the viewer. There’s been a conscious decision not to take the obvious path—Jennings and company have constructed each show in such a manner that they examine broad concepts in an indirect way.
Take the first episode, for example. Rather than a blatant examination of the issues surrounding State vs. Federal government, the show illustrates its points indirectly with a more accessible portrait of a town faced with problems involving wolves in the wild. Not only does taking this route allow for a more subtle approach toward the subject, but it puts a human face on the matter as well. Instead of providing an empty history lesson, In Search of America demonstrates that the struggle to find balance in the country is happening every day, and it’s happening in each of us.
There’s not necessarily an attempt to get both sides of a given issue on the same page, so to speak. It’s actually the disparity—and each party’s right to hold and practice its views—that the series would argue makes the country great. Jennings and his team act as any respectable journalists would, not choosing sides or editing the piece to favor any one group or argument. It’s the totality of the examination—the willingness to look at the entire picture, rather than just pieces—that makes each of these installments work.
My biggest qualm about the program is that it weighs in a bit heavily on the side of American ethnocentrism. There’s no real consideration for how we construct ourselves in the context of a global society—In Search of America has us cut off from the rest of the world, functioning entirely as an independent entity. It’s a minor complaint, considering not only that time limitations, as I mentioned before, limit the show’s capabilities to open itself up that wide, but also that the decision was more than likely intentional on the part of the producers. It’s designed as a portrait of America not from the outside in, but from the inside…well, further in, I guess.
Koch Vision releases In Search of America in a two-disc set (despite the fact that only one disc would have been sufficient; the picture and sound quality don’t seem to have prospered as a result of the program being split between two platters), with three shows appearing on each disc. The audio and video quality are below average, with the muddiness of the audio track giving the presentation the vibe of an oft-duplicated VHS tape. It’s probably not the disc you’ll be using to show off your player, but that was more than likely apparent from its title alone. Either way, the content of the disc far outshines its technical aspects.
Is In Search of America the kind of disc that one would watch over and over again? Well, I wouldn’t—but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t captivated when watching it one time through. It’s the type of thing that’s probably best suited to showing in a high school classroom; it’s a discussion starter, allowing for multiple reactions and points of view. More than that, though, it’s actual journalism. That may not sound like much, but in this age of FOX News, we should all count our blessings.