'Legacy' examines great non-white civilizations

January 31, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Maryland Public Television has a winner in "Legacy," the six-part series written and hosted by Michael Wood, which premieres Sunday night at 8 on channels 22 and 67. The look at great civilizations of the last 5,000 years is informed, evocative and occasionally spiced with a touch of poetry by Wood.

But, on the other hand, it is yet another example of a kind of TV presentation seen all too often on PBS: It's the let's-get-a-camera-and-follow-a-white-male-around multi-part series. There's a special irony here, because a big part of Wood's message is about how much of our world is the result of civilizations that pre-dated European, civilizations made up of persons of color. That's an important message. Maybe it's time PBS started presenting big-budget multi-parters featuring such messages with hosts chosen from a list that goes beyond Bill Moyers, Wood and a handful of living, white males depicted as if they are forever setting off on metaphorical journeys of enlightenment.

That said, let's try to celebrate the first hour of this documentary co-production between MPT and Central Independent Television, U.K. There is much to praise. Wood's journey Sunday starts in Iraq on the eve of last year's Gulf War.

Wood wisely opens with the propagandistic depictions of Iraq, which were embraced by TV last year and served as the first impression of the country for many Americans. From there, he uses words and artifacts to conjure up a sense of southern Iraq as the cradle of civilization, the literal model for humankind's notion of the Garden of Eden. Wood and his producers do it so well that it would not be overstating the case by much to say they weave a spell that takes you back to a sense of Eden and our earliest stories. Wood clinches it with a reading from the Epic of Gilgamesh. As he stands before Eridu, the mound where it is said that civilization was brought down by the gods and given to man, you can almost feel the holiness.

We follow his Land Rover through the sand and lunar landscape to magical places. He comes to Uruk, the city of the goddess Ishtar, and spends a night there with a watchman who lives alone in the ruins of the ancient and abandoned city with only his family. Wood trembles as he picks up a piece of pottery that the watchman tells him is 6,000 years old. Wood beams with gratitude and goodwill as the man breaks bread with him at dinner in a hut amid the darkened ruins.

"Legacy" has the capacity to transport viewers to other places and times. It may even make some viewers feel connected to something larger than the particulars of their own lives. That's a lot. But it's also time to ask PBS and MPT to do even better.

"Iraq: Cradle of Civilization" will be followed at 9 Sunday by Wood's journey through India. The series will also air Monday and Tuesday at 8 on MPT with Wood's examination of the civilizations of China, Egypt, Central America and "The Barbarian West."

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