American Masters: Novel Reflections on the American Dream



9 p.m. Wednesday, April 4

I thought about starting this by saying: If you force your secondary school-age kids to see one program all year, make it this one. The truth is that even though this unique episode of "American Masters" -- dubbed "Novel Reflections on the American Dream" -- breathes life and excitement into history and literature, it is bound to be more meaningful for adult viewers.

That is because it's about the American dream, that nebulous ideal concocted from freedom, success, effort, opportunity and prosperity, the proportions of which vary from one person to the next. Unlike other "American Masters" specials, this one is not so much about great minds as about what great minds conclude, based on the novels they wrote.

Writer-director Michael Epstein is no newcomer to the documentary form, but this two-hour program, with its fascinating mix of biography, social history and letters belongs at the top of his -- or anyone's -- resume. Using vintage footage and artificially aged video and stills, Epstein creates silent reenactments that illustrate seven novels and yet keep the actors from imposing their own layers of interpretation. Meanwhile, passages from the novels are given extraordinarily fine readings by Victor Garber, Julianna Margulies, Tom Hammond, Keith Carradine, CCH Pounder, Ming-Na and Liev Schreiber.

Each novel selected by Epstein is not only a great read but also has something profound to say about the American dream. Each also, as Epstein points out, reflects the author's own experiences. The novels are Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gasby," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Ann Petry's "The Street," Gish Jen's "Typical American" and Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day." Watch this and you'll be in great company.