Series watches kids growing up


October 14, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Childhood" grows on you.

The seven-hour look at human development starts out with lots of noodling and meandering. But about two-thirds of the way through tonight's installment, it finds its stride and starts sounding its themes with some authority. For parents of young children, it's a PBS series worth recording.

"Childhood," which airs at 9 tonight and each of the next six Mondays on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), is an ambitious, sprawling project from public TV station WNET in New York and Great Britain's Channel 4. It follows 12 families on five continents for an 18-month period. According to the producers, the goal of the series is to try to help viewers understand the influences that shape us from birth through puberty. The approach is cross-cultural, with families from Russia, the United States, Brazil, Japan and Africa included.

There are two major problems with the first hour. One is the lack of a clear sense of direction or any real indication of where the series is headed with these 12 families. The second is an uneven script, which at one moment sounds as though it was written for a graduate seminar in cultural anthropology and at other times as though it was written for elementary schoolchildren.

"We are about to embark on an expedition of discovery of our children and our species," viewers are told in language from the lecture hall, as the series opens. Later, as the family from Brazil returns to its ancestral home for a reunion, the narrator asks in a tone that seems keyed to preschoolers, "What will grandmother see in the faces of the children across all the years?"

But those are the low points. Once the series settles down with families in Moscow, New York and Sao Paulo, which are expecting births, it starts to percolate. The writing improves. Interesting images are presented and edited with a sense of pacing. The focus sharpens. The delivery room scenes make for an emotionally involving conclusion to the hour.

"Every time a baby is born, it brings with it the hope that God is not yet disappointed," the narrator says, quoting an Indian poet. That's the voice a series like this needs. "Childhood" misses more than it hits being both wise and accessible. But the moments of connection are worth the seven-hour journey.

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