'Constitution USA With Peter Sagal' is a smart educational ride

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2013 - 1:51 PM

Minnesota may not be one of the original 13 colonies, but it's making up for its late-starter status with one smart documentary after another.

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Peter Sagal, of "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" talked to an audience at the Minnesota History Center recently about his new television show produced by TPT.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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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.

It worked.

“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.”

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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.

  • Constitution usa with peter sagal

    When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays.

    Where: TPT, Ch. 2.

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