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Peter Sagal takes educational ride with 'Constitution USA'

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

6:18 PM EDT, May 6, 2013

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“Constitution USA With Peter Sagal,” the new PBS series about the country's ever-disputed founding document, tests an important constitutional principle: that the framework for a federal government, drafted with high hopes and noble purpose back in 1787, can be taught via flush toilets, marijuana buds and a public-radio host riding a Harley.

The four-part series — directed by Ken Burns collaborator Stephen Ives and hosted by Peter Sagal of “Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!” — aims to create another framework, one in which the relentless contemporary discussion about the Constitution's meaning and intent will have an actual basis in knowledge. 

We can rail about the Second Amendment or Obamacare's alleged intrusion on states' rights, goes the show's line of thinking, or we can sit back and become informed first. And then rail some more, but perhaps in slightly different, more nuanced language.  

To that end, PBS is giving the series, which premieres Tuesday, the tent-pole treatment, making it one of the most heavily promoted and widely carried shows on public television this year, along with the likes of “Downton Abbey” and Burns' latest documentary, “The Central Park Five.”  

To some degree, the program sets itself an impossible task. Professors teach yearlong courses on tiny parcels within the entire landscape “Constitution USA” attempts to cover. Telling the nearly 4,500-word document's history and highlighting important moments in its development, all while underscoring contemporary resonances, will be, by definition, reductive. 

But, with Sagal stepping before the cameras as an engaged Everyman, it's a brand of reductive storytelling that is entertaining enough to bring the information home. He tells an old Jewish joke about eternal arguing within a congregation because it reminds him of the country's endless debate over the Constitution. To a Montana gun-rights advocate, he says, “I say this as a man who owns, like, six bicycles, but why does a man need so many rifles?” His manner, as on the radio show, blends wit, knowledge and likability and justifies the inclusion of his name in the title.

The Harley — purchased for the series at a Villa Park Harley showroom and to be auctioned off after the series airs — acts as a metaphor for an idea of American freedom some in the series say has been slipping away with recent constitutional interpretations. But it's also utilitarian. Sagal, a motorcycle rider in young adulthood who renewed his license for the sake of the series, chugs up to the homes or offices of his interview subjects, rides with helmetless Harley aficionados and even carries a former Obama administration environmental regulator on the Harley's back across the Golden Gate Bridge. 

While the series would like you to believe Sagal, of Oak Park, rode all around the country learning about the Constitution, what really happened, of course, is the Harley was driven or carted all around and the host rode it in the vicinity of the interview subjects or such illustrative pit stops as the Hoover Dam. Still, as transitional devices go, the big bike beats the heck out of, say, the conjunctive adverb. 

Parts 1 and 2, which were available for preview, detail the battle over federal versus state power and the history of the Bill of Rights. There are individual moments that feel preachy and oversimplified, reminders that the series' makers — who also include producer Amanda Pollak and writer Jaime Bernanke (who got an assist from Sagal) — intend the program to live on in schools, as a teaching tool. 

But when many members of the public still confuse the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution, it's hard to imagine how you get this material across without a few remedial moments. These are dressed up with often engaging, occasionally befuddling Monty Python-style graphics. (Why is Patrick Henry pictured with a modern-era sandwich?)

Other nimble touches abound. Sagal interviews a law professor about free speech limits in a setting often cited in such discussions, a movie theater. One of the women who integrated Little Rock, Ark., schools is reunited with a soldier who, under federal order, protected her. A member of the Arizona Leathernecks Motorcycle Club pulls from his leather jacket a pamphlet-sized copy of the Constitution, just as a Yale law scholar did from his pants pocket earlier in the series. 

The Yale professor, Akhil Reed Amar, is the go-to professor on the Constitution, apparently, and when he compares the adoption of the Constitution to the Big Bang and says it is “the most democratic deed in the history of planet Earth,” the words are stirring. But Amar, in subsequent appearances, never becomes the show's Shelby Foote, the kind of interpreter whose deep passion and knowledge are able to excite an audience as Foote did in “The Civil War.” 

At least in the first two episodes, the series' stronger moments are spent with people living real-life constitutional moments: the California pot vendor caught between state and federal law; Chicago public defender MiAngel Cody, who asks if Sagal has seen “Grey's Anatomy” and says, “My job is like being an emergency room lawyer”; the dead serviceman's father who brought, and lost, the Supreme Court case seeking to ban the Westboro Baptist Church (the “God hates” people) from protesting at other military funerals. 

The explanation of why this last was an 8-1 decision — no matter its political makeup or popular sentiment, the court has been consistently protective of freedom of speech — is clear. But so is the follow-up, which saw states, and then the federal government, writing new laws to protect military funerals and private citizens pitching in by shielding mourners from catching a glimpse of the Westboro clan, whose views, apparently, are rooted in a belief that U.S. military deaths are divine punishment for tolerance of homosexuality. 

There are many more such illustrative moments in the series, which will air over four consecutive weeks and was shot during several months in 2012. Collectively, they describe a living document that has to be admired for its ability to withstand constant tugging from every direction. But it's also one that could stand some basic clarification. With its clear and playful mind and keen eye for the telling example, “Constitution USA” is just that explainer, TV's answer to massive open online courses.

sajohnson@tribune.com | Twitter @StevenKJohnson

‘Constitution USA With Peter Sagal'
Tuesdays at 8 p.m., WTTW-Ch. 11