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Published: Monday, 11/26/2007

Sundance Channel series examines small-town life


At first, the new Sundance Channel documentary series Nimrod Nation, premiering at 9 tonight, appears to be a lighthearted look at how the other half lives, the other half being the denizens of tiny Watersmeet, Mich. They sound like Canadians, eh, and the snow-covered frozen lakes look like the same tableau as in Fargo.

But any cuteness is erased by somewhat graphic scenes of a deer being skinned and a pig being shot in the head. Neither is gratuitous, it s just how these people live.

I have a gun in my car; who doesn t? says one fresh-faced teenager. It s just the way we are. We love huntin .

Fans of cinema verite are likely to love Nimrod Nation, a slice of Americana not often seen in prime time. The series comprises eight half-hour episodes, two airing every Monday for the next four weeks.

While the show ostensibly follows the ups and downs of the Watersmeet Nimrods basketball team a Nimrod is a hunter or warrior, per Genesis 10:8 it s actually more of a portrait of the town as a whole.

ESPN viewers already know the Nimrods from a network promo. After the commercial garnered acclaim, filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10) decided to return to the town to offer a fuller picture of life in this community on Michigan s Upper Peninsula.

A member of the Watersmeet Nimrods basketball team. A member of the Watersmeet Nimrods basketball team.

Townsfolk who emerge from the crowd include George Peterson III, the Nimrods coach as well as the principal of the town s single school that serves grades kindergarten through 12. His son, George IV, is on the team, which makes for an interesting look at fathers and sons in episode two, airing at 9:30 tonight.

That episode also explores the culture clash with Native Americans when a local newspaper pictures a white student who scored 1,000 career points but not a player of Native American descent who did the same at a previous game.

Nimrod Nation paints a complex picture of a simpler way of life that may not be as affected by popular American culture as larger towns and cities, but that is touched by it. Some viewers may be offended to hear teen-age boys using unbleeped profanities, but that s what some of them do, whether you re in Los Angeles or rural Michigan.

At a July press conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., Morgen said Watersmeet first came to his attention during the creation of the ESPN spots that sought school mascots with quirky names.

I ve always wanted to do a portrait of small-town America, he said. When the commercial exploded and it ended up selling $750,000 in Nimrods merchandise I knew there was a hook to enable me to do the show that I ve really wanted to do, which was a show that was sort of celebrating small-town America, traditional American values.

Morgen sees Nation as an antidote to the contrivances of reality television. It s also a way to showcase, in a humane way, characters who may otherwise be ignored by liberal-leaning Hollywood.

Morgen said his goal was to avoid a condescending or patronizing attitude toward the citizens of Watersmeet. Those featured seem to approve of what he s done.

Brett did a fantastic job in portraying we re small-town America. Everybody in the community is part of an extended family, said Jeffrey Zelinski, who is featured in Nimrod Nation. We don t lock our doors. We don t fear nobody. My kid goes out at 2 o clock in the morning, picking nightcrawlers, and I m sleeping. It s laid-back. We don t worry about anything, but we love basketball.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com

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