Peter Sagal’s ‘Constitution USA’: You have the right to remain hammy


Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” travels cross-country on a Harley-Davidson to find out what the Constitution means in the 21st century. (Christopher Buchanan)
Hank Stuever
TV critic May 6, 2013

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.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

“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.

‘Pizza in Washington’

More cheese: WETA premieres another in its series of hard-hitting documentaries Tuesday that feature children (and, unfortunately, some adults) chewing with their mouths open. “Pizza in Washington” joins the local PBS affiliate’s previous efforts at service journalism (“Breakfast in Washington,” “Guide to Montgomery County”), all of which are perfectly benign tourism-bureau fluff.

Once more the crusty TV critic is compelled to suggest that WETA could spend what he assumes to be its lean filmmaking budget in more worthwhile ways, but he would also not wish to be perceived as anti-pizza.

As it ambles across the metro area, “Pizza in Washington” capably acquaints viewers with a burgeoning scene, in which artisanal and foodie-hipster touches (wood-fire ovens imported from Naples; local ingredients; doughs stored in humidity-free pantries) are shown alongside the fare from by-the-slice stalwarts and food-truck renegades. Restaurants featured include D.C.’s 2 Amys and Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza; Mia’s in Bethesda; the original Ledo in College Park; and Pupatella in Arlington.

At one point, we meet a group of pizza lovers who consume and discuss local offerings the way book groups dissect the work of Isabel Allende. Here, I hoped the documentary would get into philosophical and even poetic reflections on the perfect pie, but “Pizza in Washington” is far too timid a project to get people subjectively arguing about what makes a good pizza, perhaps sensing that there is nothing more grating than a New Yorker holding forth in the presence of a Chicagoan.

But whether a documentary project is about pizza or politics, the sauce should never be this flavorless. Unintentionally, WETA has once again exposed the Washington area as a place that has a lot of everything and yet still lacks a certain something. The market for dining guides and service journalism is a crowded one, and “Pizza in Washington” doesn’t come with a phone app or anything more helpful than a few faint suggestions. A full list of the restaurants seen in “Pizza in Washington” can be found online at Weta.org/pizza, but in this day and age, thin-crust infotainment like that can’t possibly compete with Yelp’s deep dish.

Constitution USA
With Peter Sagal

(one hour) premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on MPT and at 9:30 p.m. on WETA.

Pizza in Washington

(30 minutes) airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WETA, with encores.

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