Good intentions don’t always produce engrossing television, and so it is with “This Emotional Life,” a three-part PBS documentary featuring author/Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert that too often plays like an intellectual week of “Dr. Phil.” Gilbert actually interviews Phil McGraw as he leads viewers through a mish-mash of stories to illustrate aspects of our emotional existence, mixing ordinary folks with celebrity interviews — presumably to demonstrate that the famous have emotional lives too. Although some of the research is quite interesting, at six hours “Life” on PBS is nearly as bloated and messy as life itself.
Gilbert breaks the subject matter into three chapters: Social relationships (subtitled “Family, Friends & Lovers”), impediments to happiness, including depression and other negative emotions (“Facing Our Fears”); and finally the pursuit of happiness (“Rethinking Happiness”), and what’s most productive in terms of emotional health.
The third installment is easily the strongest, as Gilbert chats with self-help matriarch Louise Hay, who sums up her method as waiting to hear her “inner ding.” (Or was that inner dingbat?)
Self-help offers quick and easy solutions to complex problems,” Gilbert states, though he’s far from confrontational in his exchanges with its purveyors.
Until that modest spark emerges, “Life” is a hit-miss affair. Among many others, Chevy Chase discusses depression, John McEnroe muses about managing anger, Larry David talks about happiness, and Katie Couric admits to second-guessing her good fortune. Some of these testimonials make sense (McEnroe, certainly, given his on-court outbursts), but most feel arbitrary — trying to inject some sizzle into an otherwise academic exercise.
Bald and with a goatee, Gilbert has a soothing bedside manner, and he speaks authoritatively to celebrities, case-study subjects and researchers delving into the science of the brain and our inner worlds. Those experiments, however, are surrounded by too many up-close-and-personal examples that could be dealt with just as easily within an eight-minute newsmag segment, or (doubtless less soberly) the confines of daytime television.
PBS’ description of “This Emotional Life” suggests that it “examines whether Americans can be happier.” There is insight about that buried within the six hours — including the power of emotional resilience, our ability to adapt and the fact that humans are social beings. Overall, though, I’d be happier to have been spared the time spent watching it.