Participatory journalism in the George Plimpton style presents two significant challenges: First, not condescending to the subjects or the audience; and second, trying not to make the exercise all about the journalist himself. Although New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff occasionally falls victim to both pitfalls, his video essays exposing obscure aspects of American life prove an entertaining and for the most part successful journey, surpassing FX's similarly themed "30 Days" in most respects.

Participatory journalism in the George Plimpton style presents two significant challenges: First, not condescending to the subjects or the audience; and second, trying not to make the exercise all about the journalist himself. Although New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff occasionally falls victim to both pitfalls, his video essays exposing obscure aspects of American life prove an entertaining and for the most part successful journey, surpassing FX’s similarly themed “30 Days” in most respects.

It’s something of a shame, in fact, that this 10-part series is airing on the little-seen Discovery Times Channel, a partnership of Discovery and LeDuff’s principal employer; still, for those with an overflowing cable menu and free time, it’s worth a look, as LeDuff zigzags across the country to take part in various off-the-beaten track endeavors — a modern-day Charles Kurault with a higher pain threshold.

In the episodes made available, LeDuff’s exploration of subcultures includes an Oakland motorcycle gang’s “fight club” and a gay rodeo. That means he gets to know the bikers and their peculiar code of manly honor before climbing into the makeshift ring with a 310-pound bruiser. Later, he hangs out with the rodeo participants until he’s ready (or not) to try his hand at bull riding. (Other adventures range from playing arena football, by George, to participating in battlefield reenactments.)

Like many a print journalist interloping into broadcast space, LeDuff isn’t a television natural, the tousled hair notwithstanding. His narration often sounds stilted, and he occasionally seems too impressed with discovering that there really are aspects of America that wouldn’t instantly fit in at a Republican Party fundraiser.

Even so, he brings a certain Everyman quality to the tasks at hand, and his reporting instincts come in handy when, say, he stages an impromptu parking-lot debate between a gay priest and a “recovered” gay clergyman.

Having one proxy undergo all these experiences, moreover, makes considerably more sense than the heavier-handed “30 Days,” which for logistical reasons featured different subjects taking the “walk in someone else’s shoes for 30 days” challenge.

By employing a less arbitrary format, “Only in America” thus feels a bit more sincere — an attempt simply to remind viewers of the somewhat liberal notion that in a country this vast, it takes all kinds. Perhaps foremost, the project meets the unique burden facing Discovery Times and other print forays into new media when it comes to competing in the increasingly raucous, fact-bending documentary space, which is to have a little fun without prompting guardians of the Old Gray Lady to feel compelled to avert their eyes.

Only in America

Discovery Times; Fri., Sept. 2; 10 p.m.

Production

Produced by Gabriel Films North. Executive producers, David McIlvride, Jonathan Stack, Bill Smee; producer, Alex Cooke; directors, Stack, Cooke; writer-creative producer, Charlie LeDuff.

Crew

Camera, Ken Oreskovich; editor, McIlvride; music, Michael Richard Plowman. 60 MIN.

Cast

Corresponden: Charlie LeDuff

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