LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - For the first time,
"Frontline" and "American Experience," two giants of PBS
programming, come together on a single production: the
four-hour, two-part documentary "The Mormons."
The collaboration -- while comprehensive, well-researched,
nicely balanced, thoroughly organized and fascinating to watch
-- is far from seamless.
For the most part, "American Experience" owns the first
night, which recounts the history of a church that, in less
than two centuries, has grown to about 12 million followers
worldwide. The second night, more typical of the "Frontline"
approach, confronts issues that have made and continue to make
the Mormon church controversial to many. It examines unique
church practices and efforts to position the religion in a
The division isn't perfect. For example, the practice of
polygamy is both part of the historical foundation of the
church and, because of its cultural remnants, still an
impediment to its positioning itself as a perfect reflection of
Would the apostles who form the Mormon leadership in Salt
Lake City approve of this Helen Whitney production, written by
Whitney and Jane Barnes? Maybe not. "Mormons" is scrupulously
fair in its inclusion of the official church version of events
as well as interviews with followers and leaders who are
passionate about their religion. But it also has its share of
skeptics and naysayers who question the authenticity of
everything from church pronouncements to the very origins of
the Book of Mormon.
Was Joseph Smith, the church founder, a prophet to whom God
revealed the true direction of Christianity? Or was he a con
artist, one of many self-proclaimed seers of his day, who made
it all up as he went along? "Mormons" doesn't come down on one
side or the other but offers ample arguments for both.
The docu, narrated by David Ogden Stiers, also suggests
that the Mormon religion, simply by virtue of its recent
origins, is subject to greater scrutiny than other faiths. The
ancient religions were established at a time of imprecise
science and murky record-keeping. While there might be
contradictory scientific evidence, it isn't strong enough to
shake the faith of most adherents.
Smith, however, is a relatively contemporary figure. In
addition to official church accounts, there is no shortage of
articles, diaries and journals to confirm or dispute his words
and deeds. While the real motives of Moses and Jesus, seen
through the gauze of centuries, are assumed to be pure, no such
filter exists to protect Smith from steely-eyed scrutiny.
If there is a weak point to this hugely informative and
watchable series, it may be the amount of time allocated in the
second night to the practice of Mormon missions and the
church's heavy-handed approach to critics. Regardless, this is
a brilliant work on a engaging topic.
Narrator: David Ogden Stiers
Producer-director: Helen Whitney; Teleplay: Helen Whitney,
Jane Barnes; Editor: Ted Winterburn; Frontline producers:
Michael Sullivan, David Fanning; American Experience producers:
Sharon Grimberg, Mark Samels.