'Constitution USA' doesn't feel like a civics lesson

Television • PBS documentary gives much-needed information without being ponderous.
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Every week on NPR's "Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me," host Peter Sagal entertains us as he informs us.

Which is the concept behind "Constitution USA," a PBS documentary series that teaches us about the Constitution in a surprisingly entertaining way.

"We were desperately trying to find a way to animate this story so that it didn't come across as everyone's dreaded civics lesson from junior high school," said director Stephen Ives. "So the idea of giving Peter sort of a dynamic thing to animate, a journey around the country, really seemed like a great idea."

So Sagal hops on a Harley and motors around the country — along with a side trip to Iceland — to expose us to the history and the present-day controversies surrounding our Constitution. It turns out that, for all the jabber about the document from politicians and cable news personalities, Americans really need some exposure to it.

Sagal recalled riding in a Fourth of July parade in Evanston, Ill., where his patriotically painted Harley drew cheers from the crowd.

"I literally rode up to people and put a microphone in their face and said, 'What do you think of the Constitution?' " he said. "And of the people who had a response, 90 percent of them went, 'Yeah, the Constitution — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Which isn't in the Constitution."

"Seventy-one percent of Americans believe that that phrase is in the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence," said Richard Beeman, one of the historians who appear in "Constitution USA."

A recent Annenberg poll indicated 62 percent of Americans can't name the three branches of government.

"Never in my life have I seen Americans so passionately interested in the Constitution," Beeman said. "And, of course, also passionately divided over what the Constitution means. That's the good news. The bad news is that Americans continue to be amazingly ignorant of the Constitution."

Fortunately, "Constitution USA" doesn't beat us over the head with our ignorance, and Sagal leads us through issues and conflicts with a great deal of charm.

For the most part, this is not a series about politicians and historians. Sagal talks to "regular" Americans about constitutional issues that affect their lives — from gun control to gay marriage to medical marijuana to whether your tweets can be used against you in a court of law (which they can).

And "Constitution USA" looks at the document with admiration, not exactly reverence.

"When people say the Constitution is etched in stone, it's a sacred document, well, actually, we had a little thing called the Civil War," Ives said. "And we needed to do some fixing of the Constitution after that."

"Constitution USA" deals with serious issues, but in a way that feels nothing like sitting down and reading a history textbook.

"We wanted to talk to people who are genuinely and truly affected by the Constitution," Sagal said. "We wanted to show people how and why, and for good or for ill, the Constitution is actually active. It's not just this abstract principle that people invoke when they want to have the right to do what they want to do. It's actually active, and we are all living it."

spierce@sltrib.com —

'Constitution USA'

The four-part documentary series airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. from May 7-28 on PBS/KUED-Channel 7.