Political travelogue offers a fresh look at South America

South American Journey PBS, Tuesdays through Aug. 18, beginning tomorrow, 9-10 p.m. (check local listings). Creator/writer/host: Jack Pizzey. Producer/directors: Geoffrey Barnes and Clive Feury. Presented by WHYY-TV, Philadelphia. One-hundred and fifty years ago, South American liberator Simon Bolivar predicted on his deathbed: ``Tyrants will rise from my tomb.'' He believed that dictatorship would long be a way of life on his continent.

His prediction has become the title for the first segment in this eight-part survey series, which starts with a breezy but incisive report on Bolivia and Chile, then in later segments meanders through Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Equador, and Argentina.

An Australian named Jack Pizzey (the series was first produced for Australian television) serves as tour guide for this glib, entertaining, informative series, which constantly teeters on the edge of controversy but usually retreats nervously at the last moment.

Chile, for instance, is presented as a land of urban democracy and rural backwardness, with a penchant, as in all of South America, for military dictatorship. Former president Salvador Allende Gossens is mentioned, but his fall isn't discussed. The current leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, is handled gingerly, but the series stops short of any attempt to portray him as a savior of democracy.

In fact, the need for Chile to advance beyond the rule of a military junta gets a thorough airing, amid travelogue views of the grandeur of the country's landscape.

Mr. Pizzey makes it clear that he agrees with the words of Bolivar. He finds the concept of democracy throughout South America to be strange - one that usually involves acceptance of the military in the political process. That observation has some basis in reality, but it illustrates one of the series' weaknesses - its tendency to generalize. For example, Pizzey also tells viewers that the countries of South America have a habit of basing their economies on one product at a time: tin in Bolivia, nitrates in Chile. But then he must backtrack and admit that Chile has switched to copper.

Pizzey has two other habits that are sometimes irritating, although there are probably viewers who will find them endearing: First, he tends to echo stereotypes, describing Argentinians, for example, as people who speak Spanish, live in French architecture, come from Italy, and think they're English. And second, when a Buenos Aires matron tells him he'll ``never understand us'' until he ``can dance the tango,'' he proceeds to dance off with her, placing himself in the midst of the action, best profile to the camera, of course.

PBS - still a bit gun-shy after its airing of ``The Africans'' last year stirred up controversy over whether it was appropriate for public television to air politically unpopular points of view - shouldn't yet breathe a sigh of relief. There may be trouble ahead over this slick, colorful, walkabout series.

While Pizzey doesn't often delve deeply, he doesn't hesitate to reflect potentially controversial attitudes in just about every country he visits. I'm certain that there are factions in each country that will question his interpretations of both history and the present.

``South American Journey'' is an entertaining excursion - an easy- to-watch, once-over-lightly, political travelogue just a bit reminiscent of John Gunther's fast-moving ``Inside...'' series of books a few decades ago. It's charmingly earnest, even at its most superficial.

But despite my reservations about the depth of research in a series where many interviews seem to be chance, off-the-cuff encounters, ``South American Journey'' - like the Gunther series - possesses a core of fact and seriousness that makes it much more than mere entertainment.

In coming weeks the series will feature segments on the rise and fall of the Incas, the mystery of why Argentina hasn't lived up to its potential to become a great nation, the Amazon jungle, superstars of South America, the role of the Roman Catholic Church, the Carnaval in Rio, and Colombia as a microcosm of the continent.

If you sign on for this eight-week package tour, you'll experience a fun voyage with a curious and lively companion. But, if you really want an education as well as a joyful jaunt, better take along a few good books on South America, past and present.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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