[Update: 04.29.12: PBS' own ombudsman concedes that America Revealed, whose sole corporate sponsor is the Dow Chemical Company, fails to meet the broadcaster's editorial standards and policies "perception test." Find out why here. Or read more in the comments.]
Let’s begin, shall we, with the first episode of America Revealed, “Food Machine,” which sets out to explore the vast, industrial way food is grown, processed, and transported in this country. The four-part series on systems kicks off with its first episode on food on April 11 (subsequent programs tackle energy, transport, and industry).
The 56-minute program is hosted by the Bay Area native Yul Kwon, a former Survivor winner, among his eclectic accomplishments. Okay, let’s get some of the others out of the way: He’s been featured in an issue of People‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” A lawyer by training, a graduate of Stanford and Yale, he helped draft the Homeland Security bill, worked for the Federal Communications Commission, and is a now a “daredevil television host,” according to his bio. Oh, and he opened a yogurt shop in Walnut Creek, his childhood hometown.
Regardless, this reviewer has one question for the good people of programming at PBS: What were you thinking?
The episode plays like propaganda (at first I wondered if it was going to morph into mockumentary-like parody, alas no). Everything is bigger and better in this great United States of America, Lion Television, who produced the series, would have viewers believe. (The program is based on an award-winning BBC series Britain from Above, by the independent production company, which has offices in the U.S. and the UK.)
You can practically taste the awe at the sheer scale of things in this land from our brothers and sisters across the pond. America Revealed is beamed at you via bright lights, aerial footage, high-definition video, real-time satellite data — in other words, a bunch of high-tech bells and whistles.
Then there’s Kwon who takes to the skies — a lot — to illustrate, well, to illustrate what exactly? Oh, yeah, this is a vast and complex country. And: I am a sexy survivor who skydives.
During the last century, an American industrial revolution has given rise to the biggest, most productive food machine the world has ever known, the show announces. Look at our marvels of engineering magic that allow 80 percent of the state of California’s water to go directly to Central Valley farms — in an area that was previously a desert — to produce 50 percent of the entire country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
Might there be anything misguided about redirecting all that precious water? Just curious. But there’s no time for controversy here, we’re simply going to tell you how it is, with a grin, and move on.
The episode also explores how the U.S. food system feeds nearly 300 million Americans every day — an impressive feat for sure — at a time when less than two percent of the population produces food for the other 98 percent. Well, hello Big Ag.
America has put nature to work, the script explains, with a maddening neutrality that made this writer want to run screaming in frustration from the screen. See how the heartland is composed of massive corn farms, where ag pilots spray more than 40 pesticides — in the bad old days there were only a few! — on crops eventually destined for supermarket shelves.
Find out about the modern invention known as genetically modified corn that fills so many of the products in grocery stores. Could any of this be detrimental to human health or farmland? Just asking. But, no time, we must keep on trucking.
Speaking of corn, discover how clever Americans are feeding corn — not a natural source of food for cattle — to animals who get pumped up supernaturally in industrial food lots, where they’re also given doses of antibiotics and growth hormones for good measure, just so consumers might enjoy a large steak. At low cost. Should we discuss whether all this is good for the animals, land, or humans? Nah. The food machine just “gives us what we want.” Next segment please.
Let’s talk “craveability.” What Americans want, the New York restaurant experts explain on America Revealed, is big servings of so-called “celebration foods” and they want ‘em all the time. Case in point the restaurant hit known as the Bloomin’ Onion — soaked in buttermilk and batter and deep fried, this monster on a plate sells like hot cakes at that embarrassment to any self-respecting Aussie known as the Outback Steakhouse. (Walkabout Soup? Alice Springs Chicken Quesadillas? Chocolate Thunder Down Under? Some marketing guru got rich making this stuff up, but I digress.)
So much of this episode is just uncritical content presented without any context, which does a disservice to viewers like you, who expect more from PBS documentaries.
What if some social studies teacher showed this to a bunch of high school kids? They’d get the impression that the American system of food production and distribution is a well-oiled machine. And that’s just so far from the truth.
To be fair, if viewers stick around to the 40-minute mark, there are a few indications that all might not be golden in The Land of Oz. (Yes, folks, the camera crew visit Kansas and there are even references to Toto in this program.) Colony collapse disorder gets some attention. Those super-size-me steak and fried onion feasts are making Americans fat and fatter we learn. Kwon revisits water in California, but only from the perspective of the expense to farmers. Don’t get me started on the crop-dusting segment.
Towards the end of the hour the show explores the subject of food deserts — places where people can’t find real food to eat, since they only have corner stores that specialize in liquor, Lottery tickets, and cigarettes. One guess where the camera crew is headed? Detroit it is.
The Motor City seems to have become the poster child for urban food renewal for visual media. Pans of vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and graffiti graphically illustrate something went horribly wrong in the home of Motown. Cut to images of urban farmers — many African American — growing fresh food for their people in a place that had little for a very long time and it’s clear that the city is undergoing a transformation.
Meet the aptly named Will Gardner, an enterprising edible entrepreneur, who sells his produce at a Detroit farmers’ market, and one of the few bright spots in an episode where a fourth-generation Midwesterner described himself not as a farmer but an “input-output manager.” Oh my.
What else not to like? The overwrought writing and soundtrack, the frenetic images that begin the episode, the host’s mug filmed from one too many planes.
Consider yourself warned.
Now, back to Detroit. The pilot of the series Food Forward, which showcases urban agriculture across America, reports on what’s gone down and what’s growing up in the Motor City too. The episode aired April 9.
The sight of Edith Floyd beaming on her bright orange tractor turning what were trash-strewn lots into thriving community gardens loaded with edibles is heart-warming and hopeful.
As are all the stories of urban farmers producing change in their own lives and others, such as IATP Food and Community Fellow Malik Kenyatta Yakini of the Detroit Community Food Security Network. These people don’t pretend they’re going to be able to feed an army let alone the entire country. They just want to do their part to get good food into the hands, mouths, and bellies of the people in their local area. You can’t help but root for these underdogs in this series premiere.
This writer has already covered Food Forward before — in an interview with producer Greg Roden for a previous Bay Area Bites post and in a story featuring writer Stett Holbrook for Civil Eats. Watch this program. Don’t just take this reviewer’s word for it. Food writer Sean Timberlake described the pilot as a celebration of the real food heroes around the country. Indeed.
This 13-part series needs support, just like the people it profiles, who are trying to bring about change in America’s troubled food systems, whether it’s a rooftop gardener in Brooklyn, a hydroponic grower in Milwaukee, or a self-described nugget of deliciousness dropping off boxes of freshly picked produce to neighbors in West Oakland.
This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.
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