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DVD Review: ‘On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Set Three’

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On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Set 3 collects 57 classic pieces of storytelling into a DVD set as different from the DVD sets most people will find under their trees this Christmas as fresh-from-the-oven homemade apple pie is from a bag of Skittles.54961845996_p0_v2_s260x420

In the 21st century, we have come up with convenient labels to divide American society: red state, blue state; the one percent and the 99 percent. But those labels rarely come with a face, and almost never with a life story. On the Road transcends the definition of “American,” letting the viewer instead come to know the actual people beyond labels, a tactic not of divisiveness, but of cohesion.

These On the Road segments, which first aired on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite between 1967 and 1987, tell the stories of the “people you know from next door and down the block,” as Kuralt says in the intro to each episode. The individuals featured on the show—including a hex-sign painter, singing mailman, steamboat captain, and a Mt. McKinley inhabitant—talk about their lives and their work in a straightforward manner, without drama or special effects. Yet, it is the most fascinating piece of television I have seen in a long time.

Be forewarned: in the age of Blu-ray, these DVDs are demonstrably not HD. But it’s kind of nice, a reminder of what it was like to watch TV 20 years ago, when people knew that there was a difference between television and reality, and TV wasn’t supposed to be a replacement for living in the 3D wonderland of real life. Over 45 years after Kuralt filmed the first episode of On the Road, the stories he shared are as compelling as the day they were told—if not more so, considering the paucity of real people we see on TV today.

Charles Kurault is the ideal companion for a cross-country trip along the nation’s back roads. He respects all the people he meets, and is genuinely curious about their lives. His humor is the good-natured, sweet variety, not the caustic version so common on TV now. If there has ever been someone more lovably avuncular on television news, I don’t know who.

Calm, simple, pleasant, and unassuming, these shows remind us that the attributes often undervalued by our society are frequently the ones we need most. Kuralt takes you to a place when children knew how to play with other children (rather than video games), people built with their hands and not machines, and being earnest and kindhearted were considered to be valuable and not just signs of naïveté. I wanted more than the 14 20-minute episodes collected in the set, until I remembered that I had just watched a great example of the value of “enough.”

These DVDs may have a ready market today, as more and more people turn to the handmade: hipsters rejecting the mass production their parents embraced. However, this is not simple living that has been packaged based on a market assessment of what is currently hip—it’s a way of life for the people in the show, and as such it feels more authentic than much being produced today that purports to embrace the same values.

I’m not advocating a return to simpler times—heaven knows, I wouldn’t last long delivering mail by mule, as one of the interviewees does. However, slowing down, getting to know the people who surround us on a daily basis, doing our best to lead authentic lives, and recognizing the joys that have nothing to do with consumption, would probably make us happier people.

As elephant keeper Roger Henneous, profiled in an adorable segments featuring several baby elephants, said, “Anyone who can stand to watch the three of them and not smile should get themselves to a shrink!”

But Charles Kuralt may be all the treatment you need. If you are stressed out, pessimistic about society, depressed, or just generally uninspired by life, this is your new therapy assignment: watch one episode of On the Road a day. I promise you’ll gain a new appreciation of humanity.

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About Kerri Shadid