Appellate Judge James A. Stewart once tried rafting down the Mississippi. He got as far south as Minneapolis.
"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.
Facts of the Case
On the Waterways first ran on PBS in 1991; it's now available on DVD in 13 episodes on four discs:
• "The Western Gulf Coast"
• "The South Atlantic"
• "Lake Superior"
• "The Ohio"
• "Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway"
• "The Lower Mississippi"
• "The Eastern Great Lakes"
• "The Mid-Atlantic"
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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