“Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself” (PBS, Friday). “American Masters,” that great library of American cultural accomplishment, gives the nod to the late writer, editor, publisher and media personality -- if not exactly the father of “participatory journalism,” then the man most identified with it through the last half of the last century. Which means, I suppose, that many of you will not have heard of him. (All the more reason to watch Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s affectionate, at times intoxicating documentary.) As a sort of Walter Mitty not content to dream, Plimpton was the artist as dilettante, the dilettante as artist, transforming himself into the semblance of a professional football player (the source for his best-selling “Paper Lion,” later a major motion picture), a basketball player, a baseball player. But also a stand-up comedian, a percussionist in the New York Philharmonic, a bit player in a John Wayne Western, a wild-animal photographer. That he did none of these things well was not the point -- or rather, it was part of the point, which was to understand excellence by failing to achieve it.
Plimpton wasn’t the first writer to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes in order to comprehend a process, a challenge, a point of view -- he credited Paul Gallico, who sparred with Jack Dempsey and golfed with Bobby Jones as his most immediate model -- but he made it His Thing. Morgan Spurlock, experimenting on himself with junk food in “Super Size Me,” is his spiritual child; but so are the struggling celebrities of “Dancing with the Stars”; or any writer who attempts to live as a caveman for a year, or work as a sherpa, or follow in the steps of Phileas Fogg to get a book out of it. Though Plimpton was always at the center of his work, he looked outward as much as inward; he did not just want to tell you what he was feeling -- in life, at least, he could be reticent about such things -- but what he saw, and did it with eloquence, lightness and humor. (Hemingway was an inspiration, and a friend, and, some posit, a father figure.) He came from patrician roots but had the common touch curiosity confers.
Some of his later transformations were accomplished for television, a medium some of his more literary friends found demeaning -- Plimpton was also the co-founder, editor, lifelong steward and frequent financial support of the important literary journal The Paris Review -- and one of the questions the film asks is whether it was worth it to be George Plimpton, Transformer, rather than George Plimpton, whatever some people thought he should be or imagined he really wanted to be. (“The last thing on his mind was to write the great novel,” first wife Freddy Espy recalls. “George was quite happy with who he was.”) The tale is told partially in Plimpton’s own words (some read by son Taylor), and by a coterie of handsome, often silver-haired friends, relations and colleagues, recalling shared days of giddy youth (shading into giddy middle age, and beyond). There were, apparently, a lot of cocktails.
“Day Job” (YouTube). Comedian Sara Schaefer, host with Nikki Glaser of last year’s MTV late-night “Nikki & Sara Live,” offers eight scenes from the life you sometimes have to live to live the life you want. These snippets of post-"Office Space” cubicle comedy are as brief as ‘60s pop singles -- one lasts just a second more than a minute -- but each has its own flavor of airlessness or craziness or unexpected beauty. (Also: there are puppets.) As every comedian will now do at some point in her career, Schaefer plays a less successful, if possibly no less frustrated, version of herself. These tasty morsels are available now via Schaefer’s YouTube channel Little BoBo.
“The System, with Joe Berlinger” (Al Jazeera America, Sundays). Berlinger, the director of HBO’s “Paradise Lost” films, which helped free the West Memphis 3, and “Some Kind of Monster,” about the band Metallica in literal group therapy, puts his name into the title and steps in front of the camera for an eight-part look at American criminal justice. (“I’m Joe Berlinger and I’ve used my camera for 20 years to knock down doors and pursue the truth.”) “The System” is meant ominously here, as Kafka might have used it. (Though he would have said “Das System” -- or “Strafjustizsystem,” if he wanted to be more specific -- but less ominous). “I figured if I told them the truth everything would be OK,” says one woman recalling her first mistake. Episode titles include, “False Confessions,” “Mandatory Sentencing,” “Flawed Forensics,” “Eyewitness Evidence,” “Juvenile Justice,” “Geography of Punishment,” “Parole” and “Prosecutorial Integrity,” which is the polite way of saying “Prosecutorial Misconduct.”
Without becoming too obviously partisan -- he’s clearly interested in righting wrongs, but he does leaves a little room for ambiguity -- Berlinger tells gripping stories of institutional dysfunction, personal resolution, and of the disinclination both of officials and family, out of legal or emotional self-preservation, to revisit convictions that new evidence or techniques may find faulty. A common theme is the way that winning -- which is sometimes just cost analysis -- not only becomes more important than the truth, but creates new “truths” that supplant demonstrable facts. The episodes I’ve seen each focus on two cases, the better to highlight the human drama, and to underscore the idea that justice demands that every case be given its individual due; at the same time, where his subjects seem disconcertingly complicated in ways he doesn’t deign or have room to explore, he does at least suggest that those complexities exist. The films are handsomely made, as if to show respect. Episodes repeat Wednesdays.