Juxtaposed against TV’s popular versions of “reality” as well as the medium’s increasingly fuzzy definition of “news,” it’s worth taking a look at two programs premiering early next month: David Sutherland’s “Kind Hearted Woman,” a 4 hour, 40-minute documentary airing on PBS under the banners of “Frontline” and “Independent Lens;” and “Vice,” a half-hour HBO news program from international hot spots, produced by Bill Maher.
The term “reality TV” has come to define a brand of programming often most noteworthy for its un-reality — for coached direct-to-camera interviews and staged or orchestrated encounters. It’s somewhat bracing, as a consequence, to see programs that genuinely strive for realism, whether that involves unflinching views of horrors abroad, or explorations of life in all its awkward pauses and mundane moments at home.
Those familiar with Sutherland’s work — which includes earlier docs “Country Boys” and “The Farmer’s Wife” — know he seeks out personal stories and follows them at an unhurried, almost-hypnotic pace, extracting intimate portraits through years of painstaking filming.
He has done that and then some with Robin Charboneau, a 32-year-old Native-American woman introduced trudging through the North Dakota snow, whose hard-luck story is so dramatic it’s difficult to believe a writer wasn’t involved.
A victim of sexual abuse while in foster care, Charboneau — who is divorced has two young children — is trying to get her life together after a drinking problem and stint in rehab. Yet as she goes about that already daunting challenge, her daughter Darian alleges she has been molested by her father, adding a court and custody battle with her ex-husband to Robin’s list of hurdles.
Dispensing with music and possessing the feel of an indie film, “Kind Hearted Woman” (the title is drawn from Charboneau’s Native-American name) plods through a great number of interactions that seem to drone on, and the “Fargo”-style accents don’t help. That includes Charboneau’s tentative courtship with a new man who never seems to do much more than mumble and groan.
Nevertheless, Sutherland brings a grim reality to the project, sensitively dealing with the issues surrounding the children and sensing when to pull back — or let a third party, such as an attorney, putty in the gaps — regarding the more uncomfortable moments.
Not everything works — it’s especially stilted when the crew tags along as Robin spends New Year’s Eve with an old boyfriend — but those who stick around for the back-to-back nights will be treated to a true journey, not the fabricated sort that reality-TV players invariably say they’ve experienced.
If “Woman” takes a micro view of life, “Vice” seeks to plug in a macro picture, focusing on “the absurdity of the modern condition” as it travels to places like the Philippines, the India-Pakistan border, North Korea and Afghanistan, where the story deals with young suicide bombers.
Hosted by Vice founder Shane Smith — hardly a natural on camera — the magazine nevertheless resonates precisely because it zeroes in on unsettling tales of violence and cruelty abroad, at a moment when TV news frequently seems preoccupied with trifles at home.
Not surprisingly, these two programs are airing on networks with greater freedom in terms of ratings pressure — HBO because of its premium status, PBS because it’s not a commercial network. Indeed, it’s no accident HBO’s documentaries and PBS programs like “The Newshour” and “Frontline” seem like increasingly lonely bastions of serious news.
Neither is perfect, and “Kind Hearted Woman” could easily have pared off an hour without losing much. Still, for those prone to lamenting how the visual media too often takes its lead from TMZ, here are two shows — premiering the same week — with nary a Kardashian in sight.
Of course, if you’d like these shows not to be outliers, then some of you will have to bite the bullet and actually watch them.
Kind Hearted Woman
(Documentary; PBS, Mon.-Tues. April 1-2, 9 p.m.)
Produced by David Sutherland Prods. for WGBH/Frontline and Independent Television Service. Executive producers, Sally Jo Fifer, David Fanning, Mike Sullivan, Raney Aronson-Rath; senior series producer, Lois Vossen; producer-writer-director, Sutherland. 4 HOURS, 40 MIN.
(Series; HBO, Fri. April 5, 11 p.m.)
Produced by Bill Maher Prods. Executive producers, Maher, Shane Smith, Eddy Moretti; co-executive producer, BJ Levin. 30 MIN.