Constitution USA With Peter Sagal is a four-part PBS docuseries that follows the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me on his quest for evidence of the Constitution in the lives of “ordinary Americans,” from a medical marijuana dispensary in California to a gun rights activist in Montana. In the very first scene, Sagal purchases a motorcycle emblazoned with stars and stripes and the words “We the people,” which he proceeds to ride around the country and display prominently in the background of several interviews. All things considered, it’s a marvel that the show stays breezy and generally informative without totally collapsing into self-parody.
Each installment tracks a broad topic related to the Constitution—tonight’s premiere examines federalism and the conflict between federal and state power, while next week’s episode (the only other one I’ve seen) focuses on the Bill Of Rights and associated liberties. Sagal explicitly positions the series as a way of dispelling some of the myths that have sprung up surrounding the Constitution, but its home on PBS suggests it probably won’t find its way to those Sagal and the producers think need it most. Thankfully, there are only a few instances of the sort of stereotypical coastal liberal snark one might expect, with the notable exception of a dig at Mitt Romney’s role in creating Obamacare. Sagal treats the gun rights activist with the same slightly confused, almost pseudo-naïve inquisitive attitude he does with the medical marijuana entrepeneur and Constitutional scholar from Yale. In each interview, Sagal adopts a posture of taking the subject’s interpretation of the Constitution incredibly seriously and asks wide-eyed questions about potential holes.
Unfortunately, that parity is probably the best thing about Sagal’s one-on-one interviews. The editing in these segments suggests multiple takes, and none of the subjects are quite capable of sparring with Sagal on the same level as his Wait Wait co-host Carl Kassel. Some of the subjects’ stories, however, are compelling enough on their own without Sagal’s involvement—the interview with Albert Snyder, who unsuccessfully sued the Westboro Baptist Church for defamation after they picked his son’s funeral, is particularly moving.
The broad historical segments are pleasantly animated and educational enough in a Schoolhouse Rock meets Terry Gilliam sort of way. Sagal goes into just enough depth that while most of the information presented won’t be new to reasonably informed citizens, at least one or two of the stories might be. (I’d never heard the full story of Wickard v. Filburn, which initiated the vast expansion of Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause.) At the very least, Constitution USA will find a welcome home in high school civics classes for a few years.
There are a few notable instances where the ridiculousness of the premise threatens to derail the entire show, like Sagal calling attention to his tweeting on multiple occasions in the second installment, and most of his canned dialogue is an opportunity to make truly horrific puns. (There were 12 in the premiere according to an informal count.) Thankfully, Sagal is aware that some of the joke is on him and lets the wind be taken out of his sails on occasion, stopping the show from hitting peak smug. And though none of the mini-debates the show addresses are given enough attention, just explaining them makes parts of Constitution USA engaging. The measure of detail Sagal brings to these issues can also be funny, like with a line of underwear containing the text of the Fourth Amendment stitched with metal thread to tweak peeping TSA agents.
Constitution USA is pleasant enough if you don’t mind being slightly irritated. Some of the issues it raises are fascinating, like the extremely recent expansion of the Sixth Amendment (Miranda Rights, mandatory access to public defenders, etc.) and the increased role of surveillance in the post-9/11 world. But Sagal is never willing to go beyond simply asking the questions, briefly noting that increased access to information and surveillance techniques might come back to bite Americans in the ass. Constitution USA treats these issues primarily as fodder for spectacle, which makes sense in the context of the rest of Sagal’s career. That reliance on flash over substance is only fitting on the day a disgraced former governor whose sex scandal provided endless amusement for the 24-hour news cycle triumphed over the sister of a comedian.