In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: Sundance Channel, Public Road Productions, Wieden+Kennedy, 'Nimrod Nation'

Filmmaker Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) went to the town of Watersmeet, Mich.—population 1,400—in 2004 to film three commercials for ESPN (tagline: “Without sports, who would root for the Nimrods?”) and essentially never left. No small-towner himself (he grew up in Santa Monica, Calif.), Mr. Morgen said he has always been “fascinated with small-town America, mostly from watching John Ford films.”

“Nimrod Nation,” Mr. Morgen’s Peabody Award-winning documentary for the Sundance Channel, is “almost like bird-watching,” he said. “I remember telling the network, ‘You’re supposed to pack as much drama as you can in an hour of TV, but it won’t work for this.’”

That overt lack of drama seems to be exactly what the Peabody Awards committee zeroed in on, calling it a “lyrical, unhurried, eight-part exploration of small-town life” set in “a folksy hamlet reminiscent of Mayberry and Lake Wobegon, but undeniably, hearteningly real.”

In a place like Watersmeet, Mr. Morgen said, “The joke is it’s ‘high school football, the church and the Dairy Queen—in that order.’”

The high school gym “replaced the role of ‘church’ in the concept of the show,” Mr. Morgen said. “Not that it replaced the church, but basketball is what brought people together.

“The coach even said to me, with a straight face, ‘We’re coming off one of our great seasons—we were 5 and 16.’”

The director said the town is “not that obsessed with basketball” in general, “but when the team does win, it brings people together. There are Native Americans there, and Caucasians, and basketball becomes the unifying force in the town.”

Mr. Morgen said there was “nothing extraordinary about the community, or the basketball team,” which he followed through its 2005-06 season. However, “We did happen to catch [the community] at a time when there was a great group of kids.”

Working with Sundance Channel freed him, he said, from having to follow the formula of a typical reality show. He admitted he’s “a terrible reality TV junkie,” but said, “There are already people doing that, and doing it well.” He wanted “Nimrod Nation” to be “an alternative response” to a reality series.

“We wanted to refresh the landscape of TV to allow the show to breathe,” he said, “and to present characters who are ordinary.”

To underscore the show’s pacing, Mr. Morgen said, he told the editors, “When you reach a place where you want to place an edit, wait one extra beat. Don’t be afraid to go against your instincts.”

He explained, “When you don’t have ratings or advertisers to worry about, you don’t have to be afraid. I think Sundance gauges its success more by reviews.”

The elders of the Watersmeet community served “as a Greek choir” throughout the series, Mr. Morgen said. He said he wanted the show to stress that “these kids the viewers are seeing now will one day replace those guys around the table.”

“That’s why we [identified] the older guys: ‘Class of ’38’ and ‘Class of ’46.’” More than anything else, Mr. Morgen said, he wanted to show that “Nimrod Nation” is about “the cycle of life.”