Occasionally PBS delivers one of those sharp documentaries that remind us why there's a need for public broadcasting, with this four-hour production deftly tracing 200-plus years of Supreme Court history through the tenures of four disparate justices: John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hugo Black, and William Rehnquist.

Occasionally PBS delivers one of those sharp documentaries that remind us why there’s a need for public broadcasting, with this four-hour production deftly tracing 200-plus years of Supreme Court history through the tenures of four disparate justices: John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hugo Black, and William Rehnquist. Each installment sagaciously sheds light on key chapters in U.S. history and, in capturing the politics that have traditionally swirled around the court, proves illuminating regarding today’s polarized times that have turned the expression “activist judge” into a familiar invective.

Crisply narrated by David Strathairn (playing that Murrow fellow clearly agreed with him), the four hours cover vast swaths of ground in part by cleverly using key justices as tentpoles: Marshall, who established the template for the modern court; Holmes, aka “The Great Dissenter”; Black, the southerner whose progressive views alienated him from his native Alabama; and Rehnquist, the Nixon appointee who represented a lonely voice of conservatism until the winds shifted toward his stance.

Of course, the colorful characters that have served on the court render this a somewhat arbitrary smattering of what’s worth exploring, and the list of experts interviewed includes current Chief Justice John Roberts and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Reagan appointee whose centrist role placed her in the 5-4 majority of many recent cases pertaining to abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action.

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of this stimulating project is how it crystallizes the Supreme Court’s role in politics and American life, as well as the manner in which decisions are spun to serve political ends. Given how freely the term “judicial activism” is bandied about by certain pundits to malign the judiciary, for example, it’s interesting to hear how that phrase was coined (a construct based more on electoral salesmanship than law) and consider historical instances when the “activist” label has truly applied.

“The Supreme Court” also delivers a welcome reminder that times of crisis have frequently led to regrettable decisions, from the Dred Scott opinion used to defend slavery to some of the dubious rationales employed to promote industrialism over workers’ rights.

Despite its importance, the court arguably remains one of America’s least-understood institutions, and the various historians, professors and legal scholars weighing in here provide clear, valuable insight into its purpose and role — the kind of programming seldom available elsewhere, thus fulfilling a central tenet of public television’s mandate.

Put simply, think of it as TV for those with an active mind, if not necessarily an activist one.

The Supreme Court

PBS, Wed. Jan. 31- Feb. 7, 9 p.m.

Production

Produced by HiddenHill Prods. for Thirteen/WNET New York. Series producer: Mark Zwonitzer; executive producer, Jody Sheff; producers, Rob Rapley, Julia Elliott, Jamila Wignot; director, Thomas Lennon; writers, Zwonitzer, Richard Ben Cramer.

Crew

Camera, Michael Chin editors, Bruce Shaw, Ed Barteski; music, Brian Keane. Running time: 4 HOURS

Cast

Narrator: David Strathairn
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