Three-part series about trains, ships, planes and cars is surprisingly intriguing, both for the sharp production values and for the wealth of anecdotal and philosophical subtext.
At first, series assumes the veneer of an educational TV primer that carries you back to audiovisual aids in the fifth grade. But it gradually builds into an absorbing study of restlessness in America, past, present and future.
Viewer patience is the byword because it’s the mosaic of the three episodes, not any single program, that weaves a hurly-burly glimpse at not only how we can’t stand still but how the transportation industry helps define where and how we live and who we are.
Programs signal what a mixed blessing the freedom to move becomes. Humorous black-and-white TV commercials from the 1950s emphasize the glories of suburbia and the family car, in contrast to the dehumanizing effects of freeway gridlock and a life sealed off in the automobile.
Among the program’s numbing factoids: In the course of a lifetime, the average American picks up stakes and moves 11 times, and commuters who drive an hour to work and an hour back each day spend the equivalent of eight weeks a year in their car.
Creator/producer Craig Perry, shooting in numerous states with assorted crews , has turned out a textbook primer in the deft juxtaposition of talking heads, stills and footage, all of it propelled by an exceptional trio of editors (Lisa Frederickson, Gail MacFarquhar and Robyn Hutman).
Excerpts from old movies and popular songs (“Take me right back to the track, Jack”) speed things along. Perhaps the best movie clip is Marlon Brando in his black leather gear from “The Wild One” schmoozing with a waitress enamored of his motorcycle. “You just go,” he tells her, followed by that memorable, seductive snap of his fingers.
“People think if they can move from place to place they can somehow get more life,” says poet Henry Taylor. But the final words in the third hour, “The Road to the Future,” which trumpet Portland, Ore., for its wisdom to emphasize downtown community neighborhoods over segregation in suburbia, speak for lots of roads not taken: “There’s nothing wrong with standing still,” says an urban planner.
Meanwhile, the jaunty melody “We’re on the road to nowhere” casts an ironic refrain.
The first hour, “On the Long Haul,” dramatizes the loss of transportation heroes, the romantic ship captains, train engineers and truckers of yesteryear who have been replaced by electronics and technology –“especially,” says railroad historian John Hankey, “where (getting from) A to B is now a line on a computer screen.”
For many viewers, the second episode, “Coast to Coast,” which traces a family’s cross-country move, will be most rewarding for its funny asides to wanderlust.
In sum, after watching this production, the Pennsylvania Station, the Jersey Turnpike and the Hollywood Freeway will never seem quite the same again.