Middletown, a 1982 PBS documentary series about everyday life in Middle America — Muncie, Ind., where Robert and Helen Lynd based their landmark 1929 sociological book, also called Middletown — has had a troubled history. Produced by Peter Davis — who had won an Oscar for the critical Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds and written a book, Hometown, about life in Hamilton, Ohio — it was meant as a return to the searing, revelatory, verite-style reality television that PBS pioneered with 1973’s An American Family.
That it was, as Davis and other directors looked with precision and empathy at such subjects as hometown politics (“The Campaign”), religion (“Community of Praise”) and divorce and re-marriage (the lovely “Second Time Around”). But the final episode, the two-hour “Seventeen,” directed by Joel Demott and Jeff Kreines, turned out to be a hot potato — or, maybe, a hand grenade. In dealing very frankly with a group of Muncie Southside high school seniors who were from working-class backgrounds, it unnerved PBS with its talk of sex and drugs, its depiction of tense interracial relations and the foul-mouthed disrespect the students showed their teachers. It starkly showed how public education can fail.
After advance-screening it in Muncie, PBS canceled its broadcast amid heated, angry charges all around. Davis was able to show “Seventeen” in limited theatrical release, and it even won a 1985 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for best documentary. But it has never been widely available until now, released with the five other Middletown episodes on a four-disc set, with a 16-page booklet featuring a new essay from Davis.
“Seventeen” is daring, but looking back almost 30 years later, it’s painful to watch. That might be why Davis reports in the booklet that most participants are reluctant to talk today. But Middletown does constitute an important chapter in TV-documentary history, and it’s good to finally have it available. Grade: B