PBS has demonstrated it can compete in the rough-and-tumble of primetime with the breakthrough success of “Downton Abbey.” Yet that only makes it easier to forget how against the grain public television often runs, daring to be wonky – and in some instances, flat-out boring. “Boring” isn’t always bad – “The Newshour” and “Frontline” aren’t afraid to let eyes glaze over, while conveying important news and information – but it won’t cut through the clutter. And it’s the adjective I kept coming back to watching back-to-back specials that premiere May 7, “TED Talks Education” and the opener to the four-part “Constitution USA With Peter Sagal.”
Introduced as the first TED event produced specifically for television, and hosted by John Legend (who even sings), “TED Talks Education” certainly tackles a topic that should be of enormous interest to millions of viewers: How to improve what most would acknowledge is a struggling education system in the U.S.
Despite the passion of the speakers, though, the format – delivering speeches of no more than a few minutes each – seldom pops, the one advantage being that watching at home, viewers needn’t sneak yawns and glances at their smartphones during the dull parts.
The minimalist production is part of the problem. Speakers are identified only briefly, and while you might recognize Bill Gates, if you happen to look away when someone is being introduced, odds are you’ll have no idea (or forget) to whom you’re listening.
The discussion does pick up in the second half with Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who forcefully laments the shortsightedness of policies that fail to invest in educating children. Still, the net effect is to take an important issue, hit some key notes but ultimately repeatedly deliver a single message, in a manner that’s less than the sum of its parts.
If “TED Talks” is a little too repetitive, “Constitution USA” has the opposite drawback: It’s all over the place.
Sagal (host of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”) frames the discussion with a gimmick, riding across the U.S. on red, white and blue Harley-Davidson to “find out what the Constitution means in the 21st century, how it unites us as a nation and how it has nearly torn us apart.”
The interviews range from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to ordinary citizens – activists on different sides of the debate, including (in the premiere) gun ownership and 2nd-Amendment rights.
Still, it’s hardly a newsflash – unless you’re dealing with a group of middle-schoolers – to say the Constitution is a document open to various forms of interpretation, which has been at the heart of disputes since it was ratified 225 years ago (said anniversary providing the ostensible excuse for this exercise).
For anyone engaged in this discussion, merely capturing how the Constitution remains relevant can’t help but feel a trifle wishy-washy and simplistic. And it’s hard to imagine those to whom this will be a great revelation devoting four weeks to learning more, as opposed to just gravitating to the newschannel/talkradio host of their choice.
“Tackling a topic as important as the Constitution, and doing it in a way that is not only educational, but entertaining as well, is the essence of what PBS stands for,” PBS GM/Chief Programming Exec Beth Hoppe says in the release for the show.
But whatever “Constitution USA’s” laudable ambitions and merits on the first front, it’s mostly a failure on the latter. Indeed, by the third or fourth occasion Sagal mounted his bike, it felt like time to disappear over the horizon.
This analysis isn’t meant to discourage PBS from exploring such topics – especially those that receive little attention in the commercial space – but to urge them to do it better and more creatively.
Admittedly, it’s not an easy job. But as the “TED Talks” special made clear, if you don’t give people the proper guidance, they won’t learn nothin’.
TED Talks Education
(Special; PBS, Tue. May 7, 10 p.m.)
Produced by Thirteen and TED Conferences in association with WNET. Curated by TED’s Chris Anderson. Executive producers, Juliet Blake, Julie Anderson; producer, Allen Kelman; director, Michael Dempsey; editor, Laura Young; production designer, Seth Easter. 60 MIN.
(Documentary series; PBS, Tue. May 7, 9 p.m.)
Produced by National Prods. in association with Insignia Films. Executive producer, Catherine Allan; producer, Amanda Pollak; director, Stephen Ives; writers, Jaime Bernanke Peter Sagal. 60 MIN.