It’s the feel good document of the year! If you read one parchment this year, make it this one! Soon to be appearing in a high-school civics class near you!
No, seriously, it’s really important. In the series “Constitution USA,” host Peter Sagal, of the radio show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” journeys cross-country examining the current state of the Constitution, the most-far-reaching statement ever written by bewigged men whose pants stopped at their kneecaps.
Each of the four hour-long episodes focuses on a different concept: state vs. federal powers, personal freedom, equality, and politics. It’s not about individual issues, like the right to bear arms or to arm bears or whatever, but how individual issues reflect and refract the general principles enshrined in the Constitution.
For example, in episode two, the debates over gun rights and eminent domain are framed as parts of the larger debate over individual rights. The series wisely (predictably?) doesn’t provide answers to the questions it raises, just presents admirably multi-hued points of view that inform how the document has been continuously amended, revisited and re-interpreted since 1787.
There is also the occasional nugget of surprising info, usually some unpleasant fact about how we have occasionally been sluggish as a society to rise to the Constitutional occasion. Did you know the right to a court-appointed attorney was not guaranteed until 1961? That states, and not the federal government, determine whether convicted felons have the right to vote? That the first sentence of the Preamble came from a Founding Fathers’ all-night Boggle session? Guess which one of those I made up.
Sagal, who looks remarkably like a bushy-browed brother of Stanley Tucci, is a genial and amusing host, despite the ridiculous custom-painted Harley he rides around the country (Queasy Rider?). He interviews a broad range of citizens and experts whose experiences with, and opinions on, Constitutional issues form the real spine of the series. Experts interviewed include Barney Frank, Sandra Day O’Connor and P.J. O’Rourke, but the comments by average citizens hit home the best.
The series peaks in episode three, examining the challenges of the three words “We the people,” and of the 14th Amendment that ‘guarantees’ equality. There is a real sense of the personal and emotional stakes involved in citizenship, voting, marriage and reproductive rights, that the abstract of legal wranglings over constitutional issues has concrete individual impacts.
A running thread that helps bind the series together is talking head du jour Akhil Amar (“the Yoda of Constitutional law”), a constitutional scholar and Yale law professor who provides insightful if overwrought commentary, and some really Constitutional hair.
As one would expect from a PBS series, the choice of archival photos and video is top-notch, offset by some annoying ‘humorous’ Terry Gilliam/Monty Python-style animation segments. I’ve said it before—if you rely on PBS as your humor delivery system, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. But you could do a lot worse than take a light-hearted, accessible civics lesson from “Constitution USA.”
The two-DVD set of “Constitution USA” is presented in widescreen format. Picture quality is satisfactory, with no visible problems. There is an option for English SDH subtitles.
The audio track is a serviceable 5.1 Surround. There is an option for Spanish language audio.
All are very short, and really not that informative or interesting:
- A behind the scenes featurette
- An interview with host Peter Sagal that is as much series footage as interview
- “Peter and the Bike”: Sagal talks about the “iconic” customized Harley
- Deleted interview segments with Sandra O’Connor, Richard Beeman, Bill Keller and Akhil Amar
Hosted by the likeable and funny Peter Sagal, “Constitution USA” is an easy-going, user-friendly lesson on the current state of the “Big Bang” document of American government, the Constitution.