You say you want a revolution?
Look no further than Twin Cities Public Television, a station so obsessed with the story of America’s independence you’d think St. Paul staffers are required to wear powdered wigs at work.
“Constitution USA With Peter Sagal,” a four-part series that premieres nationally on Tuesday, continues a trend that began 16 years ago, when Twin Cities producers were looking for a way to serve up a history lesson that didn’t come across like a stodgy textbook.
The solution: Have established theater actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Roger Rees slip into wool costumes and read the words of our founding fathers directly into the camera.
“Liberty! An American Revolution” received the prestigious Peabody Award in 1998, with judges citing the six-part series’ “clarity and passion.”
“I think a lot of filmmakers had shied away from looking at that part of history because it’s really difficult to do without photographs you can lovingly pan over like Ken Burns does,” said executive producer Catherine Allan. “We ended up staking out an area others weren’t interested in.”
The intimate approach continued with such high-caliber talent as Colm Feore, Eve Best and Blair Brown signing up for 2010’s “Dolley Madison,” 2007’s “Alexander Hamilton” and 2003’s Emmy-winning “Ben Franklin.”
But for “Constitution,” Allan and her team threw out the playbook.
“We wanted to anchor the series in the present and show people that the Constitution is very much alive and around us,” she said.
Instead of trained actors, producers turned to Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!,” to take viewers on a motorcycle ride across the country, visiting citizens whose lives are greatly affected by interpretations of the Bill of Rights.
Sagal’s adventures, shot intermittently over the course of six months, include hitting the gun range with a weapons advocate in Montana, sipping beer with a scholar at a Philadelphia bar established in 1773, strolling through a Rhode Island high school with a student who forced administrators to take down a written prayer from an auditorium wall, and breaking bread with a bunch of ex-Marines whose passion for civil rights often leads to barroom brawls.
These encounters humanize such complicated issues as state vs. federal powers, citizenship rights, due process of law and dozens of other topics we slept through in college.
‘Serious but not too serious’
Sagal, known for his rapid-fire wit, said he struggled to figure out when to crack a joke and when to keep his mouth shut.
“I feel an obligation to be funny because people expect it. But am I going to sit there and make a joke in front of a father who lost his son in a war? Absolutely not,” he said. “Lots of times I would go for it, and it would be too much or too little. In the end it may not be a laugh riot, but I think I helped keep it light and accessible.”
Helping to take the stuffiness out of academics are clips of everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Kojak,” as well as Monty Python-inspired animation that’s more amusing than half of the material on the Cartoon Network.
“We wanted to be serious, but not too serious,” Allan said.
That ability to make weighty issues and historical characters accessible to the public is one reason why Michael Zukert, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, uses TPT productions in his classroom. He believes they are superior in quality to documentaries on the History Channel.
But Zukert, featured in both “Liberty!” and “Constitution,” said there are still no substitutes for a good book.
“There are limits as to what you can accomplish on TV,” said Zukert, who taught at Carleton College for 30 years. “Hopefully, people will see this and get interested enough to read more on their own. It would be great if someone got inspired to go and read ‘The Federalist Papers.’ ”
It’s unlikely that most viewers will actually pick up the greatest hits of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. Some may only remember a few of the animated shorts and the fact that Sagal’s Harley-Davidson looks supercool.
But maybe that’s better than nothing.
“TPT is fighting the good fight,” Zukert said. “I don’t know how much of an impact they’re having, but I think they’re doing a tremendous service.”