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TV Series Review: 'Soul Of A Nation'


On Tuesday, ABC is launching a six-part series, calling it a show by Black people for all people. The network believes it is the first time a major broadcast network is dedicating a primetime news magazine focused on Black life in America. The show is called "Soul Of A Nation." And joining us to talk about it now is our TV critic, Eric Deggans.

Welcome back, Eric. Thanks for joining us.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, it's being promoted as unprecedented. Is it? I mean, I'm thinking of a pioneering show produced in New York called "Like It Is" that ran for a long time, from 1968 to 2011. But that was local. So is it unprecedented?

DEGGANS: I mean, as far as I can remember, it's relatively unprecedented. I'm sure that there will be people who will say that there were special editions of "Dateline NBC" or something. But to have a six-episode newsmagazine that combines all the things that they're talking about doing - I mean, some spoken word, some musical performances, some in-depth, you know, news stories and newsmaker interviews - I don't think we've seen anything quite like this on network television before.

MARTIN: So I understand that you had a one-on-one conversation with the show's creator, Marie Nelson. And I do want to mention here that this is somebody I personally know. We worked together here at NPR on "Tell Me More," and also prior to that on ABC News' "Nightline." What did she tell you? What is ABC trying to do with this new program?

DEGGANS: Well, she's super-excited about it. And as you know, she came to ABC with the mandate of helping increase their multicultural programming and also helping to elevate the status of people of color who work over there, you know, figuring out how to make sure that their most senior reporters reflected the diversity of the country. And so this project kind of does both of those things, right? It's - my sense is that they're trying to eventize (ph) this kind of programming that not only tells you about Black life and culture but also allows all of the Black storytellers at ABC News to kind of shine, you know?

So Byron Pitts, who people will know as a co-host on "Nightline," goes to Evanston, Ill., and he does this great story about how that town is trying to pay reparations to some of its Black residents. And then The Undefeated, which is, you know, a platform that's owned by, you know, corporate sibling ESPN - you know, they've done this great film about the history of Black images in film and television. And they go all the way from "Birth Of A Nation" all the way to, you know, contemporary films like "Get Out."

And so you get a sense of the full breadth of people of color who work at ABC News, who are trying to tell different stories about Black culture and Black people and sort of mix in letting us know about the awful history and the oppression that exists out there, but also celebrating Black joy and celebrating Black achievement. It's a tall order, but it seems like there's a lot of good stuff here.

MARTIN: I was interested in the way they're promoting it - as a show by Black people for all people. What do you think is the message there?

DEGGANS: Well, it's interesting because I think that kind of dovetails with a lot of what we are seeing in pop culture today, which is the idea that by conveying a really authentic, specific cultural experience, you also wind up telling stories that everybody can relate to. For example, they have an interview with the Black Capitol Police officer who had to face racism when the Capitol attack happened. So he does an interview with ABC News.

And you get a look at, you know, the idea of racism, the idea of whether these attackers were motivated by racism. You get the idea of, what does it take for a person of color to face up to, you know, people like this as they're coming at them? And that's a question that I think everybody has.

MARTIN: You know, the - ABC had a lot of success with producer Shonda Rhimes, who had kind of a very kind of visionary approach to casting. Her programs all had very diverse casting. And she's now sort of taking her talents to Netflix. And I wonder whether this is a way to appeal to that same audience. It's traditional news-gathering, but it has kind of a fresh look.

DEGGANS: Well, I think that's exactly what it is. And you look at some of the segments, and they're filmed in a higher-quality way, you know, taking a little more time with how they're putting it together. And then also, there's - you know, there's a lot of celebrities. You know, John Legend's in it. Cynthia Erivo is in it, you know? So you're - and you're going to see, you know, people that you love, performers that you love, but you're also going to see some substantive storytelling and some substantive news coverage. And, you know, maybe that's the mix that it takes to kind of get people involved.

You know, I was thinking about this Netflix program, "A History Of Swearwords." And that was a really great documentary about the history of profanity in the world. But it was couched by all these great pop culture references and all these celebrities and all these funny people talking about those ideas.

And I felt like "Soul Of A Nation" in a weird way is adopting the same approach, where at the heart of it, there's this really interesting journalism and really interesting excavation of social issues, but around it, you have these performers and interesting people and well-known folks and a different way of looking at things and high-quality production. And it's all aimed at trying to find a new way to tell these stories that people really need to know, but sometimes they're not willing to make the effort to know.

MARTIN: That was NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Eric, thank you.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.