'America Revealed': The Ups And Downs Of The Quest For More Of Everything

Apr 11, 2012

The most affecting moment in the first episode of the new PBS series America Revealed comes when host Yul Kwon asks farmer Greg Stone, whose grandfather's homestead was on a small piece of what's now his enormous farm, a tricky question about his now huge, heavily mechanized operation: "Do you consider yourself a farmer now?"

Stone puffs out a breath, somewhere between a scoff and an admission of utter bafflement. It sounds a little like "Bleh." And then he speaks. "No," he says. "It'd be more of an input/output manager."

America Revealed is kind of an unfortunate title, since it sounds like it's looking under petticoats or inside Al Capone's vault. It's actually a four-part documentary series about, basically, systems and networks, and you can understand why they didn't give it a more accurate title like, America's Systems And Networks: Both Awesome And Hugely Problematic!

"Systems," here, refers to the massive, mostly industrial, operations that dominate a lot of daily life in theUnited States. The four hour-long installments of this first run, which begins tonight, cover food, transportation, energy, and manufacturing.

Now, to back up a moment, if you share enough cultural DNA with me, your first reaction to the first sentence of this piece was, "YUL KWON FROM SURVIVOR?" Yes, Yul Kwon from Survivor, who outwitted/outplayed/outlasted everybody else to the tune of a million dollars during the show's Cook Islands season, is the host. (I should mention: I know Yul a bit. We don't sit around and braid each other's hair or anything, but let's face it — there are only so many people who are willing to listen to and take seriously my elaborate theories about Survivor, and weirdly, someone who already won a million bucks at it has turned out to be a good audience.) That hosting choice makes for an interesting cross-pollination between shameless knowledge-peddling in the PBS tradition and the personality-driven world of reality television. It is something of a change of pace from the public face he's had before, and he knows it — the subject line of an e-mail Yul recently sent to folks he knows telling them about the new show was, "I'm back on TV (this time, wearing clothes)."

So in the first episode, Yul jumps out of a plane, you see, and lands in a field, and talks to farmers. He visits a farmer's market in Detroit, a gargantuan cattle operation, and a tomato fight, one of the prime functions of which is to use up some of California's surplus tomatoes. He discovers the precision with which the onions for Outback Steakhouse Bloomin' Onions have to be grown (exactly 3.5 inches, to satisfy customers but still fit in the cooking equipment), and just how highly caloric they are.

The challenge, of course, is any kind of a handle on an issue of this magnitude. In the first episode, they're biting off an awful lot by studying "the food machine" (to quote the episode title) in an hour. Colony collapse disorder, the prevalence of corn in unexpected products like chicken nuggets, the cost of water, the rise in obesity, the problem of "craveability" ... it's a lot, and obviously it's more of a primer than an in-depth study. But as a way to introduce the issue of an efficient process versus a desirable process — of how to approach a food delivery system that's actually very good at doing what it's designed to do, which is deliver a huge amount of cheap food, while being very hard on health and the environment — it's ambitious and thoughtful.

And by the time you hear Greg Stone say he sees himself as an input/output manager and wonders what his grandfather would say about his farming practices, they've laid enough of a foundation that you can both admire the innovations that have made mass production of food so cheap and understand why he makes that little noise, that little "Bleh." It's not entirely clear whether he thinks his grandfather would be impressed or dismayed at the way Greg gets 300 bushels to an acre, where his grandfather got 20. Probably some of each.

The other episodes are intriguing as well: I'm particularly fond of a segment in the manufacturing episode that takes place at C.F. Martin & Co., where they make Martin guitars, and where the factory manager says it's like "the Hotel California. You check in, but you don't check out." He says they don't lay people off — at all. If you get nudged out of your job by automation, they put you somewhere else. This is, of course, not typical.

To me, the show is fundamentally about the nature of work. Pride in your work, automation, innovation, change, tradition, exhaustion, creativity, and the complicated feelings people have about all that stuff; that's where these episodes are strongest. It's certainly not a perfectly executed project — I would have toned down the sweeping score in several places, because that's where the balance between grandeur and challenges gets shoved off of its axis at times. Industrial feedlots are impressively huge, for instance, but they're also pretty upsetting to look at, and that segment would be better if scored with a lighter hand. The visuals are much better — there's a lot of gorgeous satellite photography and some nice use of GPS technology to create imagery that shows how pizza delivery guys get around in New York City, for instance.

The theory behind America Revealed, I think, is to not only tolerate but encourage the holding in your head of two ideas at once, which television isn't always great at doing. It tells the story of serious environmental and other problems not as good-guy/bad-guy stories, but more as situations where what may have been a logical and perhaps sometimes ingenious response to demands for more of everything (more food, more energy, faster and easier transportation, cheaper products) has created these hulking systems and lots and lots of unintended consequences. You can admire the feats of engineering and efficiency and also wonder with a fair amount of unease, as Greg Stone does, what Grandpa would think.

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