"This looks like a rerun of a bad movie and I'm not interested in watching it," George W. Bush snapped during one of the will-he-or-won't-he negotiations over inspections of Saddam Hussein's supposed biochemical and nuclear sites. In National Geographic Channel's two-part documentary series The 2000s: A New Reality, Bush's words become a double entendre, an epitaph not only for the negotiations but the show itself, a stark reminder that we're trapped in a lost decade that's well on its way to two.
That's not to suggest that The 2000s is poorly done. Subject to the same caveats that apply to the inevitably shaky attempts to sum up 10 arbitrarily chosen years under a single label (how in the world did the 1970s, which began with the My Lai massacre and ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, become known as the Me Decade?) and the dangers of trying to write history too quickly (the 1960s certainly looked different in 1975 than they did in, say, 1990 after the arrival of AIDS and Baby Boomer drug-war fascism), The 2000s does a reasonably good job of weaving a tapestry of the decade's highlights.
From Enron to the iPod, from the smirking Michael Moore to the snarling Bill O'Reilly, from the cool heroism of Sully Sullenberger to the idiotic raving of the Osbourne family, from hanging chads to dimpled chads to pregnant chads, virtually no corner of the Aughts goes unilluminated, including the controversy over whether they were really the Aughts and not the Noughties or the Double Ohs.
Veteran documentary producer Jane Root not only has masterful storytelling skills but a quirky eye for detail—America: The Story of Us, her 2010 documentary series for the History Channel, began not with the Declaration of Independence or the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World but the arrival of tobacco seed in Virginia in 1610. She has employed both in sifting through more than 100 interviews and a gazillion feet or so of archival footage to put together a narrative that, no matter how many times it shifts gears, never lurches or stalls.
For instance, she effortlessly demonstrates the whiplash speed of modern technology with a 2001 clip of Steve Jobs waving Apple's new iPod and boasting that "this amazing little device holds a thousand songs." Today my iPod, using barely half its disk space, holds 13,000, yet is obsolete anyway as the music world moves on to streaming services.
Root can be also be bitingly, even bleakly, funny, particularly in assessing the performance of a mass media frantically trying to outrace its pursuit by the Internet and its hellhound social media. A Florida marine biologist recounts how he completely stopped work for a month in 2001 to do an average of 35 interviews a day after a short series of shark attacks in the waters off the East Coast. Time magazine even did a cover labeling it "Summer of the Shark," notwithstanding the fact that shark attacks were actually down from the previous year. Corrects the exasperated biologist: "In reality, it's been the summer of the media feeding frenzy." (Much less funny was the way reporters, like priggish Puritans branding the forehead of Hester Prynne, virtually convicted a befuddled Fresno congressman named Gary Condit for murder because he was having an affair with a young intern who was abducted and killed while jogging through a Washington park.)
The problem with The 2000s is that moments like the shark frenzy or the iPod are asides, tiny bubbles of oxygen in a depressing smog of terrorism, imperial overreach and economic dysfunction. Between the Sept. 11 attacks and the banking collapse that followed seven years later, the turn-of-the-century has been an overwhelmingly dangerous and depressing world.
This, too, is skillfully told in The 2000s. Even overly familiar moments like Colin Powell's persuasive presentation to the United Nations of what we now know to be false evidence of Saddam's secret weapons of mass destruction take on new form here. In an interview, Powell's former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson recalls how, as his boss recited the CIA's chamber-of-horror tales, he kept his own eye fixed on the Iraqi ambassador as he wondered, "How does he look? Does he look like we've just blown him out of the water, or does he look like this is all bullshit?" Wilkerson's dismal conclusion: "He looked like the latter."
Artful fimmaking, however, is ultimately no match for the exhausting subject matter of The 2000s. Time and again, the documentary tries to veer off into the flotsam and jetsam off the rest of the decade, from the forgotten Napster to the if-only Paris Hilton, only to be tugged inexorably back to Sept. 11 or its stepchildren like Saddam. From culture wars over flag pins to the nightmarish development of the airport-security leviathan, Sept. 11 has colored everything that followed it.
Even, The 2000s observes, popular entertainment changed virtually overnight. Movies supplied an increasing diet of cartoon super-heroes, while TV less inexplicably became obsessed with the voyeuristic sadism of reality shows in which "mean bastard" was not an epithet but an encomium. The meanest of all was the reptilian Richard Hatch of CBS' Survivor, who smuggled forbidden matches in his rectum and drove another contestant off the show by rubbing her with his naked genitals. "Everything about TV was made for Survivor," Harch observes in an interview in The 2000s. Especially the off button.
The 2000s: A New Reality. National Geographic Channel. July 12-13, 9 p.m. EDT.