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Fish-out-of-water experiences

Three shows offer 'outsider' views of life in this country, with varying success.

June 15, 2008|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times
  • ?ON THE ROAD IN AMERICA?: The Sundance Channel series gives four youths of Arab descent ? Lara, left, Sanad, Mohamed and Ali ? a glimpse of life in the U.S. It?s not always pretty
?ON THE ROAD IN AMERICA?: The Sundance Channel series gives four youths… (Sundance Channel )

Seeing America through the eyes of others should be a welcome revelation. Try this on for size: "There no longer is a country . . . people can look at as an idealistic country or as an icon. I think the States used to be that icon, and it isn't anymore." That's one of the young men auditioning for "On the Road in America," a 12-part travelogue that sends four Arab young people on a bus tour of the United States in an act of goodwill, or cross-cultural kidnapping, depending how you look at it. Either way, though, there is much to discuss. Perhaps with others to do the looking for us, we might see more clearly.

Of course, few people really want their viewpoints challenged, which may be why some current shows that look at this country with an outsider's lens feel alarmingly status quo. "On the Road in America," which premiered this month on the Sundance Channel (9 p.m. Wednesdays), was originally created as cultural propaganda by Americans to air on the Middle East Broadcasting Center as a means of improving understanding between Arabs and Americans.

If the goal is to convince the Arab world that Americans are pompous, careless and naive, then "On the Road" has succeeded masterfully. Filmed during summer 2006, thus far in the series the cross-country adventure has passed through Washington, D.C., and New York, and this week's episode will land them in Chicago. Paraded in front of think tanks, baseball fans and members of Congress like exotic specimens, the cast members are generally game but seem more interested in political conversations than most of the Americans they meet. And when the Arab youths suggest to them that they should investigate news sources besides American ones to learn more about the Middle East, they are continually rebuffed.

In a particularly painful encounter in last week's episode, the foursome were welcomed into the Hamptons home of Bob Shaye, co-founder and former co-chairman of New Line Cinema, for a lobster boil. There, Lara, an outspoken Palestinian, finds herself at odds with her host about the Israel-Palestine conflict. She is incensed. He is casual. The glibness of privilege is not pretty.

Most of the rest of their encounters aren't so textured: a moment on a Harlem basketball court, a quick chat with a bond trader who adopted a Muslim child from Senegal, bicycle riding, swimming in a hotel pool. This week in Chicago, they are given the preposterously hollow task of arranging a North Side versus South Side softball game (the South Side apparently has no African Americans; even the blues band is white!).

Whether out of bravery or stupidity, "On the Road" regularly documents the behind-the-scenes process of making this series, and in these interactions, invariably the American crew members come off unfavorably up against the Middle Eastern cast. At one point, their segment producer tells them, imperiously, "You have to bear with us, we don't bear with you," and practically dares Mohamed, the oldest and most thoughtful of the young Arabs, to walk off the show. Watching this, one wonders if the exchange would be different if the cast were, say, French.

Mohamed, at least, seems to want more from his trip than to be herded to prefabricated opportunities for (mis)understanding; only one-quarter of the way in and he is already chafing. Cameras, he has come to realize, are great delimiters.

'Lawrence' off course

It IS surprising how the superficiality of "On the Road" is not radically different from that of your average travel documentary. Perhaps responding to this struggle, the Travel Channel is seeking to add a twist to the genre with "Lawrence of America" (11 and 11:30 p.m. Tuesdays). The English host, Lawrence Beldon-Smythe, is aggressively amateur, a Dax Shepard look-alike in thick black glasses and a safari vest. In each episode, he very, very gently crashes an American subculture -- Civil War re-enactors, NASCAR, college.

Unfortunately, Beldon-Smythe isn't particularly charismatic or sympathetic, something that is obvious also to those he is profiling. This makes "Lawrence of America" less like documentary and more like the Bruno or Borat sketches on "Da Ali G Show." Beldon-Smythe also suggests a poor-man's version of the BBC's Louis Theroux, perhaps deliberately. He has been best at the Oklahoma State Fair, where the level of ridiculousness of those he interviewed far surpassed his own. Next week, when he tries astronaut training, there is a small thrill in seeing him tortured.

Even though immersion is not a successful tool in the hands of Beldon-Smythe, it has been the calling of Morgan Spurlock, both in his films and in his FX series "30 Days" (10 p.m. Tuesdays), now in its third season. Spurlock is American, but he views the country as an outsider, as if it were a curiosity to be unpacked and demystified. Though over the course of his career as an investigative journalist manque Spurlock has often come off smug, his strategies have yielded results, and impressive TV.

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