WTTW goes national with ‘Local, USA’

Evan Allen-Gessesse and Niccole Thurman

Evan Allen-Gessesse and Niccole Thurman

With the launch of a new national series next week, Chicago’s WTTW-Channel 11 is living up to its name as a “Window to the World.”

“Local, USA” is billed as a 13-part documentary series showcasing segments from public television stations across the country along with the work of independent producers and other content creators. Each half-hour episode will explore a particular theme.

Premiering at 5 p.m. Oct. 21 on the World Channel and locally at 11 p.m. Oct. 24 on WTTW, it marks WTTW’s first national series in years and its first in partnership with World, the digital channel produced and distributed by WGBH-TV in Boston, WNET-TV in New York and American Public Television.

Hosting the series and introducing each segment will be two Chicagoans, Second City performer Niccole Thurman and independent producer Evan Allen-Gessesse.

Jamie Ceaser

Jamie Ceaser

“It’s such a treat to see the quality and depth of work from PBS stations all across the country as well as the work of independent producers,” said WTTW veteran Jamie Ceaser, who’s co-producing the series with Eddie Griffin. “It’s really exciting.”

Public television viewers with longer memories may recall a similar concept in a show called “The 90’s,” produced here by Tom Weinberg and Joel Cohen of the Fund for Innovative Television. From 1989 to 1992, the critically acclaimed PBS series curated edgy, evocative independent videos and films around social and political themes. Clearly it was ahead of its time.

Here are the producers’ descriptions of the first season’s installments of “Local, USA”:

Through the Past — Wherever we go, the past is never far behind. From Chicago, Illinois, to Lincoln, Nebraska, and Weston, Florida, to Toledo, Ohio, “Local, USA” explores four stories connecting us to times gone by: a family business that started a fast food innovation; a man trying to keep a legacy alive; a muralist who keeps the iconic images of yesteryear around for generations to come; and the fragility of life is examined through the memories we keep, and the ones we forget.

Sense of Place — Finding a sense of place and purpose in four stories: a young Memphis girl seeks solace and safety in her favorite hiding place; a family of native descent returns to Lincoln, Nebraska, the land of their forefathers to learn about the past and connect with the present; a whimsical artist who has worked for 35 years creating a visual feast of his most cherished sites throughout San Francisco; a silent film star in Seattle tours the world he knows; and a lifelong Chicagoan sees his town in a whole new way thanks to a theatre group from the other side of the world.

Finding One’s Voice — This episode is about searching for an artistic voice, and a way of expressing oneself. An autistic artist finds the best tools to communicate his wonderful works of art, despite barely uttering a word and a young prodigy connects with her inner performer and discovers her electrifying voice.

Defying Disability — Traumatic brain injuries, or TBI, has received increasing attention especially among athletes and soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. We examine the links between TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder, and the damage they can do, through the story of retired Army sergeant Andrew Reeves of Colchester, Vermont.

Poetry in Motion — Storytelling with a kick: The words, sounds and people that bring poetry to life — a painful story about bullying; powerful memories of a soon-to-be demolished housing project; inaccurate assumptions about a pretty face; coming to terms and acceptance with loss; and the melting pot of identity politics. Five pieces from cities across the USA, including San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis, that are connected by the rhythm of words and the search for identity.

Beehive Spirits — Utah is not exactly the first place you think of when talking about alcohol and liquor. But since the early days of prohibition, “The Beehive State” has a unique foray into distilling spirits. We retrace Utah’s fight for and against alcohol with a look at the characters keeping it alive today.

Death and Dying — An uplifting meditation on death and dying with stories that prepares us for the journey. An embalmer in Toledo, Ohio, prepares a deceased person with the precision and attention of an artist; a dying Brooklyn woman prepares for her final journey with dignity, grace and a dinner party; a teenage hospice volunteer shares advice from his patients and his experience growing up amidst a landscape of violence and death in Brooklyn, New York; and observations from an urban Memphis, Tennessee, philosopher.

Social Media — We get social with social media: Finding the people using social media to change the world. The Chicago painting duo who use Twitter to reward treasure hunters; documentary cameras hit the streets of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to ask how social media influenced the 2012 presidential election; a look at what happens when an entire generation of Instagram users gets together with their cameras on the beaches of Santa Monica, California; and how Facebook helped to make a young Los Angeleno boy’s dream come true.

Living the Dream — Living the life: Whether it’s in the cozy confines or your own home, or venturing out to find your calling in the big wide world — four subjects in pursuit of their dreams. An array of Airstream enthusiasts in Colorado have their own rules for the road; an unlikely roper from Lafayette, Louisiana, hopes to lasso himself a winner; a Brooklyn, New York, collector with an eye for the unusual finds beauty in found objects, and a decorated war veteran returns to pursue his gridiron goals in the heart of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Native American Culture — Three stories about the modern Native American culture: A look at how climate change is affecting a Pacific Northwest tribe known as the “Salmon People” and how science can help find a solution; the Lincoln, Nebraska, rock star artist who’s creating sculptures, linking the past to the present; and the fight as an Oklahoma tribe tries to revive their fading language.

Urban Gardening — Sowing the seeds of change — planting ideas for sustainability and self-sufficiency. You might think of it as a Midwest rust belt town, but community gardeners in Flint, Michigan, are undergoing a variety of projects and planting the seeds of hope for economic revitalization. From green belts to green thumbs — a couple works with children to hone their martial arts and gardening skills; and two women toil with the local Flint government to get their garden growing.

Drive Like a Girl — This episode follows New York’s champion all-girls robotics team, The Iron Maidens, just one year after they beat more than 60 male-dominated teams in a regional competition. Though they advanced to the national stage in Atlanta, Georgia, they lost before winning it all. Now, they’ve returned for another shot at the title. They had six weeks to design, program and build a robot alongside their brother team and one of their competitors, the Sciborgs. The struggles they face reveal what it takes to be a group of girls excelling at a boys’ game, and their successes are a glimpse at the changing roles of females in science and technology.