Review: ‘Two American Families’

two american families

Bill Moyers doc offers sobering generation-long look at the struggling middle class

Usually, one is well advised to be wary of TV’s micro portraits devised to illustrate macro trends. Yet “Two American Families” is such a potent treatise on the U.S.’ struggling middle class — as captured through Milwaukee families, chronicled over more than two decades — it works on both levels. Correspondent Bill Moyers represents the unapologetic liberalism that often causes conservatives to howl about PBS, and make no mistake, this 90-minute “Frontline” presentation is a powerful advocacy piece. But it’s told in such a restrained, methodical way that aside from those committed to partisan scorekeeping, it demands to be seen and discussed.

The producers first introduced these two families — the Neumanns, white; the Stanleys, African-American, each barely clinging to the American dream — in 1991, and this special marks their progress as measured over roughly two-year intervals until 2000. It then returns a dozen years later to check back with them, puttying in the trials they faced as filtered through a struggling economy, home foreclosures, unexpected medical bills and strained or fractured marital ties. (Moyers will also be featuring the earlier documentary and exploring these issues on his independently distributed public-affairs program, “Moyers & Company.”)

At one point, when one of the wives discusses building up debt on her credit card, she says, “It’ll tide me over till I can get a miracle.”

Moyers makes explicit the underlying message — how the disappearance of solid manufacturing jobs as employers pursued cheap labor undermined the ability of such blue-collar families to get ahead, with all the attendant strain that fosters. And while the Neumanns and Stanleys continue to work, raising three and five kids, respectively, they acutely feel the shift toward nonunion jobs, with lower pay and fewer benefits.

“Our marriage is really on the rocks,” Tony Neumann says early on, a harbinger of things to come.

Two American Families” also underscores the sometimes-overlooked separation between the painstaking work of documentary filmmaking, — which labors to elicit natural responses and reactions by investing the time to put the subjects at ease — and reality TV, where the goal is to create “characters.” Perhaps that’s why the former feels so much more real, having invested roughly a generation (on the order of Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series) into the process of documenting these people’s lives.

Not that “Two American Families” gets quite that deep, but it does put faces on the statistics to which we can easily become inured, while not-so-subtly arguing the hardships facing many Americans are traceable to forces much larger than their own enterprise or sloth. And if that challenges the popular mantra that anybody who works hard can get ahead in the good ol U.S. of A., it’s precisely the kind of discussion quality journalism is supposed to provoke.

Two American Families

(Documentary; PBS, Tues. July 9, 10 p.m.)


Produced by Frontline with Okapi Prods. and Public Affairs Television in association with Left/Right Docs.


Executive producer, David Fanning; deputy executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath; producers, Tom Casciato, Kathleen Hughes; writers, Hughes, Bill Moyers. 90 MIN.


Correspondent: Bill Moyers

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  1. Sal Paradise says:

    Apparently the film makers, Tom Casciato and Kathleen Hughes, have a nephew in show biz as well. I saw a recent press release in The Source magazine featuring Skaz One a.k.a. Zachary Casciato. Upon further research I found they are related and Zachary is Tom’s nephew. Skaz One is actually a pretty good rapper. This is a talented family and I just thought that was interesting enough to share.

  2. Kathleene Parker says:

    I stand with labor activist Cesar Chavez–and all other liberals until corporate media, in the 1990s, convinced us our motives could only be “racist” or “xenophobic”–on the side of returning immigration to low norms and strict employer crackdowns and border enforcement. When are we going to “get it” that the poor, minorities and unskilled workers (and many highly skilled workers) are suffering the most from an absolutely glutted labor market that has corporate America calling all the shots, further complicated by outsourcing, jobs replaced by technology and full-time jobs replaced with part-time so that employers don’t have to pay benefits. We cannot simultaneously accept more immigrants a year than all other nations of the world combined–numbers that will further increase with “immigration reform” as proposed–and save the Middle Class, a message the American people sent the Robber Barons a century ago, but a lesson we now chose to ignore as we tell young people that “these are jobs Americans don’t want.” Empathy for these peoples’ plight is fine, but until we address WHY their plight, it is of little help to them or anyone. This presentation was excellent, but if we as a society don’t start looking at cause, not symptoms, we will fail, as will these families.

  3. E. Monaghan says:

    “Two American Families” is a powerful piece of journalism which oddly seems to stand alone for
    quality and writing excellence. It shows the decline of the middle and working classes from the late 1970’s in America. These two very decent couples have been struggling, largely unnoticed, with millions of other Americans through difficult times. Only one of the children of these families exists the period with a college degree, steady job and health benefits. Bill Moyer is a pro at letting the story tell itself. His compassion for his subjects is very pronounced. This show is must see tv.

  4. Scott Whitesides says:

    How can I donate DIRECTLY to the “Two families” shoed in the Bill Moyers progam…whern stories are aired on TV, there should be an easy, DIRECT way to help the people being featured in need…How can I help these two families directy? Scott

  5. Don Mitchell says:

    For decades I’ve heard criticism of “being an American” as old fashioned or worse. It seems insincere to hear media suddenly notice and lament the lack of a cohesive social consciousness.

  6. “But it’s told in such a restrained, methodical way that aside from those committed to partisan scorekeeping, it demands to be seen and discussed.”

    My apologies, but you lost me at Bill Moyers, who has, time and again, proven himself utterly incapable of telling me anything in a “restrained, methodical way.”

    • CC says:

      “My apologies, but you lost me at Bill Moyers, who has, time and again, proven himself utterly incapable of telling me anything in a ‘restrained, methodical way.’”

      Apparently you didn’t see the documentary. Moyers was very restrained in it. He allowed the families to talk freely.

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