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.