The fresh, clever, ironically hilarious “TV Nation,” with director/co-writer/host Michael Moore looking rumpled under a baseball cap, is, conceptually, his feature docu “Roger and Me” reformatted for a TV magazine show. But in style and content it’s not remotely like any other magazine series, although it’s edited like one, with locations stretching from Mexico to rural Minnesota to Manhattan to the Kremlin.
# The subjects are real enough — free trade in Mexico, discriminatory New York taxi drivers, selling Love Canal real estate, Russian missiles and a high-tech, empty prison in Minnesota. In fact, the segment about the private, elaborate prison in Appleton, Minn., fully staffed but totally devoid of inmates, is shot in precisely the manner of “60 Minutes,” with chic correspondent Merrill Markoe.
Otherwise, the segments create the sense of a project that, as Moore describes it, “poses the question ‘What if the rest of us had a TV show?'”
It opens outside NBC’s Gotham headquarters with Moore complaining to a passerby that he’s been given an NBC TV show but no office, producer, studio or “even key grips.” It’s at that point that the resourceful Moore opts to take his show to Mexico “because that’s where they make all the TV sets. And now we come down and make the TV show. You can just feel the synergy.”
The resulting trip, to Reynoso, Mexico, is characteristic of the entire show. Moore’s act — and it is that — of affable, disheveled, low-key innocence continually draws unwitting, self-destructive comments from Mexican and American officials proudly describing the maze of U.S. plants and the glory of free trade in Mexico.
The Mexican workers, who, we hear, “work for 75 cents an hour,” are assembling washing machines. “How many of them have washing machines at home?” asks Moore.
“Oh, very few,” says the American plant manager. “Most of them don’t have running water. They have to use a bucket.”
The unstated theme is the greedof American corporate personnel, shown in their palatial homes just across the border in McAllen, Texas, thriving off a private duchy in Mexico. (The camera pans Reynoso acreage leased by AT&T, Whirlpool, Converse, GM, 7-Eleven and Zenith.)
Meanwhile, sometimes the tone of the show suggests a “Roadrunner” cartoon.
Check out Moore innocently talking to a Mexican worker:”Lots of Americans come down here,” says the casual Moore.
“And exploit the Mexican worker, just like Ford (Motor Co.) did,” snaps the worker cynically. “Taking American jobs like Ford did and exploiting us.”
Off camera, Moore innocently responds, “I mean, that’s not the way our political leaders described free trade. They said it would create jobs in the U.S. and build better lives for all Mexicans.” (Earlier, a news clip of President Clinton shows him proclaiming the same thing.)
Moore even interviews a plant manager who says he saw “Roger and Me” and thought it was too one-sided.
The segment “Taxi” examines how New York cabdrivers often refuse to pick up black men who are not well dressed. The story is old as the hills and just as stripmined, but Moore adds his own take on the canard.
Moore stations black actor Yaphet Kotto on a New York street hailing a cab, and a quarter block away, a white man, whom Moore says “is actually an ex-con,” also trying to flag down a taxi.
Time and again the cabs ignore Kotto but stop to pick up the white man (Louis Bruno). When “TV Nation” rushes up, pokes a mike in the taxi window and asks why they brushed off the black guy, the cabbies respond in a confused, incomprehensible babble of foreign tongues and accents. As a quencher, the members of rap group Run DMC pile into a taxi before it can get away.
Pray that this production not only survives the summer but makes the fall schedule.