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Peter Sagal hits the road in a Harley to see the Constitution in action

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8 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays on WTTW-Channel 11

Updated: June 7, 2013 6:05AM

A documentary on the U.S. Constitution easily could turn into the television equivalent of Ambien.

Picture it: Stodgy historians pontificating about the document’s origins as the camera slowly pans across portraits of the framers.

Educational? Maybe. Entertaining? No way.

The makers of “Constitution USA with Peter Sagal” are acutely aware of the glazed-over-eyes effect that can come with a documentary about these four pieces of parchment paper, an “owner’s manual for a new nation” ratified 225 years ago next month. That’s why the new PBS series went to great lengths to dodge the boredom bullet.

Producers combined snappy graphics, clever animation and archival footage with a Harvard-educated host who cruises around the country on a Harley-Davidson, talking to ordinary Americans caught up in modern-day constitutional debates. Twin Cities Public Television and Insignia Films have managed to jazz up the documentary without dumbing it down, creating a kind of sophisticated, “Schoolhouse Rock!” civics lesson about this uniquely American blueprint for governance.

“Everybody feels passionately about the Constitution but very few people — and I’d include myself, prior to doing this project — understand what it does, how it does it and its history,” said Sagal, an Oak Parker best known as the witty host of National Public Radio’s news quiz show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

Sagal, who hadn’t been on a motorcycle for 20 years, geared up for the assignment with riding lessons in a parking lot by the United Center, “doing my little figure 8s and learning how to stop and start again. I got my license by a hair,” he said.

Last Fourth of July, Sagal rode his Harley Road King along Evanston’s parade route, getting people’s take on the Constitution.

“They’d say, ‘We love the Constitution! Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!’” Sagal recalled. “Those words aren’t even in the Constitution.” (Perhaps a Declaration of Independence documentary is in order?)

Our collective lack of knowledge about the Constitution — only 38 percent of adults could name all three branches of U.S. government in a 2011 national survey — hasn’t stopped us from arguing about what it means.

The four-part documentary, airing each Tuesday in May, takes viewers on a tour of the country’s constitutional controversies, past and present. It focuses on regular folks, with occasional input coming from experts like retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and a Yale professor Sagal calls “the Yoda of constitutional law.”

During this travelogue-with-a-twist, Sagal visits a medical marijuana dispensary in California. He fires off a few rounds with a Montana gun activist, who believes the feds have used the Constitution’s commerce clause to usurp powers belonging to the states.

The second episode centers on the Bill of Rights, which brings Sagal to a small town in Rhode Island. That’s where a school’s prayer banner raised the thorny issues of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. He talks to the father of a slain soldier whose funeral was picketed by Westboro Baptist Church, with the dad arguing that his right to privacy is no less important than protesters’ freedom of speech.

Much attention is given to the Fourteenth Amendment, the one that deals with citizenship, equal protection and due process — and the one most frequently cited in court cases. Sagal chats with a Connecticut firefighter claiming reverse discrimination and checks in with immigrants in Chicago studying for their citizenship test. He swings by a seminary outside New Orleans, where monks said a state-sanctioned monopoly boxed them out of the casket-making business.

The final episode includes Sagal clutching an Asian carp plucked from the Illinois River, illustrating a governmental debate about what should be done to keep the aquatic invader from infiltrating the Great Lakes.

Sagal’s travels took him to 26 states, where he logged upwards of 1,000 miles on his Harley. (Make that his ex-Harley; he didn’t get to keep the bike). He even went to Iceland, a country that’s taking a crowdsourcing approach to writing a new constitution in the wake of its economic collapse.

Despite featuring a red, white and blue motorcycle emblazoned with the words “We the People,” the documentary celebrates the Constitution without being jingoistic. It’s an educational, entertaining, warts-and-all look at something that deserves our better understanding.

“It’s a very human document,” Sagal said, “and it depends on humans — with all our imperfections — to act on it.”

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