PBS (Tues., July 5, 9 p.m. ET)
PBS begins a summer series of independently made documentaries—”P.O.V.” stands for “point of view”—with one near success and one miserable failure. American Tongues is the good one. This uneven but charming show tries to pay tribute to America’s many accents and finds a few neat ways to do that: A New Yorker defines the word shlep—to carry, with tinges of martyrdom—and then some Southerners try to say the word and guess what it means (as near as they can figure, it is pronounced “sheylp” and has something to do with sleeping). We see and hear four Bostonians with four distinct Boston accents all talking at once. We meet the all-American voice of directory assistance. But the show takes missteps too: It often does not tell us what accent we’re hearing, where it comes from and what distinguishes it. The show is lazy on research, offering only a very lame list of regional jargon (jambalaya is unique as a dish more than as a word). And it tries too hard to find profound lessons about tolerance in our accents: “Our speech reveals how we deal with the world.” Say what? And: “What sounds funny and odd to one person is music to the ears of another.” Wrong. As long as people continue to make fun of the decidedly unmusical way Rambo speaks, there is hope for the English language.
Acting Our Age, the other film of the week, is a patronizing, self-indulgent, boorish documentary about San Francisco women older than 65. The women are pleasant; it’s the film that’s a bore, filled with the sort of California clichés you expect to hear in a hot tub or on Hothouse.