MPI // 1991 // 780 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // July 31st, 2007
"Water brought most of our ancestors to this continent, and water took them westward into it. Water was their road to freedom, and sometimes riches, their source of inspiration and adventure."
In his opening, Jason Robards describes On the Waterways as a labor of love. The show was envisioned by a young filmmaker and put together by his father after his death in a car accident.
It follows filmmakers just out of school as they sail on the 60-foot yacht Driftwood, "a large floating mobile home with a full complement of video equipment," in its three-year mission to travel 25,000 miles from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the crew takes in the scenery and gets to know the people who live along North America's rivers, lakes, and oceans.
On the Waterways first ran on PBS in 1991; it's now available on DVD in 13 episodes on four discs:
* "North Atlantic"
The journey begins on the St. Lawrence Seaway, taking viewers as far as Boston. Among the people the crew meets is the editor of Maineiac Express (a local counterpart to The Onion).
* "The Western Gulf Coast"
On the Texas and Louisiana coasts, the crew visits shrimp boaters, the Tabasco factory, and a Saturday morning Cajun music party.
The crew swims with manatees, rides a sponge-seeking boat, and talks with Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, the 100-year-old author of The Everglades: River of Grass.
* "The Upper Mississippi"
People along the river explain how they cope with floods; steamboats and a houseboat community in the Twin Cities are also featured as the Driftwood sails from Minnesota to St. Louis.
* "The South Atlantic"
Sailing from Florida to the Chesapeake, the crew encounters artisans mounting fish and carving duck decoys, hears about efforts to preserve the Gullah language, and watches sailboarders and hang gliders at Kitty Hawk.
* "Lake Superior"
Two shipwrecks, including that of the famed Edmund Fitzgerald, are featured as the Driftwood tours the most pristine of the Great Lakes.
* "The Hudson River & The Erie Canal"
Efforts to preserve the scenic Hudson valley, a camp for inner city youth, and a baby clothes manufacturer are featured.
* "The Ohio"
The Driftwood travels the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River, stopping to visit a female boat captain, a scientific pig barn, a horse farmer, and a salvage operation.
* "Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway"
Along the nation's largest man-made waterway, the crew finds that change has a human cost as they see the remnants of towns flooded by the new canal.
* "Lake Michigan & The Illinois River"
Traveling from the Mackinac Bridge on Lake Michigan to Havana, Ill., the crew visits remote Beaver Island, a private wilderness park, and the cities of Milwaukee, Chicago, and Peoria.
* "The Lower Mississippi"
Music plays a role as the crew takes in Memphis, hears a rendition of "Old Man River," attends a blues festival in Arkansas, and meets a musical small-town mayor while traveling from St. Louis to the marshlands south of New Orleans.
* "The Eastern Great Lakes"
The Driftwood travels from Montreal to Toronto, by way of lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Among the highlights: visiting a McGregor Bay marina store operated by a descendant of the explorer who gave the bay its name.
* "The Mid-Atlantic"
On the Waterways wraps up with a trip from Newport, R.I., to Cape May, N.J., that, appropriately enough, spotlights people who want to pass their love of the water to a new generation.
If some of the scenery shot from the boat doesn't make you wish you'd been on the Driftwood, there's something wrong with you. It's video shot with natural lighting, so everything doesn't look perfect. Still, the montages of wildflowers, majestic cliffs, wild animals, and pristine coastline are impressive. The crew even tracks a father and son rafting on the Mississippi in one episode. While On The Waterways is more about people than scenery, it does take the time to linger on the natural beauty of North America's coasts.
The people the crew met were interesting, and they took the time to go into detail when necessary. The stories about the people who work the waterways -- river pilots, fishermen, dock workers, and oil workers, to name just a few lines -- were the most intriguing to me.
On The Waterways also let people into the everyday lives of the ever changing Driftwood crew. The yacht stopped for repairs after hitting a submerged log and the crew dealt with choppy waters. Each episode shows the crew discussing what they learned in reality show style, but the best moments show the crew members getting involved, such as seeing crew members join in duck calls on the Mississippi or recoil from a noisy tractor. A touching moment comes when Canadian crew member Bill Arnold returns to a favorite island park in Toronto.
"Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway," by far the show's best episode, traverses the modern canal, visiting two towns destroyed to make way for progress. It also visits Africatown, home to the descendants of freed slaves, as the community in Mobile, Ala., fights for historic status to escape demolition for commercial purposes. The theme of lost history and ways of life, always present in the series, hits home hardest in this episode. Other standout links on the journey include "The Lower Mississippi," with its emphasis on the music of the river, and "The Mid-Atlantic," which shows how life on the water may be preserved for a new generation.
On The Waterways spends a lot of time dealing with regional economic woes and environmental concerns. The young crew does a fine job of putting a human face on these issues and showing the importance of traditional industries and lifestyles. In Pittsburgh and in Thessalon, Ont., the effect of environmental rules on jobs is shown. Still, there is occasional preachiness; after watching artisans mount fish, the crew offers its own view that the fish should have been caught and released.
The big flaw with an issue-oriented emphasis, though, is that there's no attempt to follow up and show us whether the economies rebounded or the river pollution got cleaned up.
The segments on Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans, two cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina, have an unintended irony today, more than 15 years after the show first aired. The Driftwood crew heard stories about Biloxi's recovery from past hurricanes, while a statement in Jason Robards' narration -- "By all rights New Orleans should have been swept away by the Mississippi long ago" -- felt like foreshadowing rather than the thankful tribute to the city it originally was, another reason why extras that update the show in some way would have been welcome.
If you're just looking for a fun ride, go with Samantha Brown or Anthony Bourdain. These folks on the Driftwood mean to educate you about American history and the lives along its waterways. Footage of depressed towns and empty factories, without any updates to put it in context, can be, well, depressing. On the other hand, occasional scenes like a pork festival in Cincinnati or the making of saltwater taffy in Atlantic City would be right at home on the Travel Channel.
I'll also note that the more relaxed pace of On The Waterways can be too slow at times, especially if watching a couple of episodes in a row.
I also had the feeling that the episodes were not presented on this DVD in filming order.
On The Waterways is more ambitious than the average travelogue. At its best, it'll make you think about progress and tradition. Who knows? Maybe you'll go out and find a job on the locks when you finish watching. But with all the information packed in there, your head might be spinning if you sit down for a marathon.
MPI is guilty of failing to follow up on these stories, but On The Waterways, for the most part, lives up to its mission.
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 780 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated