PBS's four-part "Constitution USA With Peter Sagal" rides along with the humorous host of NPR's popular "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" quiz show as he traverses the nation in a too-cheeky-by-half attempt to find and narrate evidence of the U.S. Constitution in glorious action. This mostly means Sagal interviews legal experts, historians and even the people who advocate those low-flow toilets that drive libertarians ape. He also hangs out with gun proponents, medical marijuana sellers and the like, while trying to look casual.
A chunk of the first episode, premiering Tuesday night, is spent outfitting Sagal with a star-spangled Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which will put him on the road and directly in touch with the people.
"Do I look like a dork?" Sagal asks a saleswoman in the Harley boutique as he tries on a helmet and snug leather jacket. ("You are so conceited," she replies, in a spot-on comment that should entitle her to a lifetime supply of answering-machine messages recorded by Carl Kasell.)
You can see Sagal and his premise coming from many miles away, making precisely the irritating jokes and wry asides you'd expect him to make. The effect — educational or otherwise — rests somewhere in a parched canyon between "Schoolhouse Rock" and a "Daily Show" segment; it is reminiscent of that hammy American History prof hoping to grease the tenure track by being funny and well liked.
But let's get back to that 225-year-old document and the miraculous way it binds us together, in what Sagal says is not so much the United States as it is the "Ambivalently-and-Sometimes-Begrudgingly-Cooperative States — but that would be hard to fit on a coin."
"Constitution USA" both acknowledges and plays down the vituperative tone of present-day political discourse by pointing out that Americans have always argued. Dancing graphics and sound effects work double-time to keep your eyes from glazing over. When he visits Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Sagal notes that the Framers worked all summer with no air conditioning and while wearing wool suits. "Never before have so many owed so much to people who smelled so bad," he says.
Some may find "Constitution USA" is a fascinating and informative romp, chuckling right along with Sagal. I found myself feeling a tad sorry for his interview subjects, who seem to have been coached and goaded into matching his repartee. On the plus side, you will finally understand Wickard v. Filburn and the commerce clause. On the minus side, you must endure the following:
Sagal: "So, Roscoe Filburn had a farm."
Legal expert: "E-I-E-I-O."
In Montana, Sagal meets a gun advocate who came up with the constitutionally interpretive notion of manufacturing the "Buckaroo" rifle available for sale to state residents, outside federal regulation. At a point where he couldn't possibly sound more nasally, effete and urban, Sagal asks: "I say this as a man who owns six bicycles, but why does a man need to own so many rifles?"
Off they go to the shooting range, where, Sagal is once again compelled to crack wise: "When in Montana, do as the Montanans do — and what Montanans do is protect themselves from an army of cardboard people."
There you have your red-and-blue disconnect in living color, but you also have the calming presence of a television show, which keeps things friendly and polite — because everyone wants and deserves to be on television. It's our right.
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"Constitution USA With Peter Sagal" (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m.