Television provokes so many emotions: Anger, fear, laughter, tears. But it's becoming rare these days to watch a TV show and simply smile. No big guffaws, just a feeling of calm, pleasant cheerfulness.
That's what you get from "A Hot Dog Program," Rick Sebak's latest production that airs nationally on PBS stations Wednesday at 8 p.m.
This one-hour celebration of hot dog stands across the United States allows Sebak to do what he does best - introduce viewers to a bounty of real-life characters who happen to be hot dog fans. Some of them only say a single sentence, but their inclusion proves real people are far more colorful than any character a screenwriter could dream up.
Take, for example, the owner of Superdawg in Chicago. He takes umbrage when Sebak calls the anthropomorphic hot dog characters on the roof of his shop "weenies."
They're Superdawgs, he insists. "If you clean up your language, we can continue."
Sebak's ambitious journey to hot dog stands across the country takes him east to Super Duper Weenie in Fairfield, Conn., where the owner refuses to sell diet soda (he fancies his 1973 GMC Stepvan a '40s and '50s-era lunch wagon, and they didn't have diet drinks back then).
To the west - really west - he finds M.A.'s Gourmet Dogs, a cart in Anchorage, Alaska, where hot dogs made of reindeer meat are sold at the start of the Iditarod dog sled race every blustery March.
Sebak gets into the rituals that become a part of every mom and pop-type establishment, including the rallying cry of order-takers at The Varsity in Atlanta. Like carnival barkers, they beckon customers with a jolly, "Whatta ya have, whatta ya have, whatta ya have!"
"A Hot Dog Program" will never be confused with the weighty, serious documentaries that air as a part of PBS's "Frontline," and that's fine. There's no law that says everything on public TV must be lofty, yet "A Hot Dog Program" still provides an education for hot dog gourmands. Planning a trip? This show offers dining suggestions in places as diverse and distinct as New York City and Anderson, S.C.
With a voice that's a less obnoxious Michael Moore by way of Andy Rooney, Sebak narrates this special in his usual upbeat, occasionally wide-eyed, style. He's the feature documentary maker you can count on to shine a light on normal, everyday people, and in the process reveal they're anything but average.
With "A Hot Dog Program" he also knows when to stop. The show runs just under an hour. Anything more and you'd get that bloated, I-ate-too-much, feeling.
Alas, Sebak couldn't get to every hot dog stand in the country, and he apologizes at the start of the show if he didn't get to your favorites. My family's preferred hot dog spot, Ted's Jumbo Red Hots in Buffalo, N.Y., didn't make the list. With all the boiled dogs in the hour, I wish there was more representation from the charbroiled variety of dogs served at Ted's. No matter.
Except for the section on hot dog manufacturing, "A Hot Dog Program" is an hour destined to lead to cravings. The owner of a hot-dog shaped stand in the Colorado foothills says even the vegetarians who come to her place have a hard time resisting. So it is with "A Hot Dog Program."
'A Hot Dog Program'
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday on PBS.
Narrated, produced, written by: Rick Sebak.