The Sundance Channel is billing its new documentary series, "On the Road in America," as the sort of "groundbreaking" TV that has the power to change the world. That's a tall order for what amounts to a high-minded, serious version of "Borat": four foreigners cross the country and meet the American people, in hopes that some wisdom crosses in either direction.
The travelers are four young Arabs - three male students from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and a Palestinian woman - who speed along in a luxury RV in the summer of 2006. This functions as a lovely travelogue, with artful glamour shots of the Atlantic coast, the monuments of Washington, D.C., the glittery streets of Los Angeles.
But our visitors hardly get a typical American experience; it's more like the life of a movie star with political pretensions. They're treated to a meeting with senators and congressmen, a cookout at the home of the New Line Cinema chief, a sample of the swag that celebrities get in advance of the Emmy Awards.
Our friends take full advantage of their V.I.P. status, shopping for clothes, eating fine meals, getting to know the population intimately: At one point, the men marvel that one of them, Mohamed Abou-Ghazal, has managed to sleep with two women in one night. (For some, that probably qualifies as a type of American dream.)
As for cross-cultural understanding? There are glimmers of insight, here and there, for the Americans who watch. (This series aired last year on the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, halfway across the world.) On their tour of Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the stars marvel at a set from a disaster movie - buses, charred and overturned, buildings in ruin - and note wryly that you can see this sort of thing every day in Beirut. And in a meeting with "The O.C." star Rachel Bilson, Abou-Ghazal explains, quite evocatively, that Middle Easterners are "uncomfortably numb" from living with war so close at hand.
Whether the cast members will learn as much from America remains to be seen. In the early episodes, at least, the other men come across as vaguely angry and mistrustful, and not especially articulate. The woman among them - Lara Abou Saifan, who is billed as a "production assistant" instead of a "star" - is the most introspective by far. Still, even some of her great moments of discovery don't seem especially earth-shattering, from a global point of view. How many other Palestinians or Israelis, after finally meeting a nice individual from the other side of the border, discover that they can be friends?
"On the Road," however, treats this as a grand step, and celebrates it thoroughly. It's part of the series' tendency toward distracting self-awareness, as if the producers constantly want to be congratulated for their work. We see plenty of shots of the crew in action - the Israeli in question is also the director of photography - and plenty of producers' speeches about how important this project is. We also hear more than one lecture in which some harried crew member chastises the stars for not showing up on time or partying too much.
But given their charmed existence and their temporary status, can you really blame these guys for living large? The main lesson here, indeed, has little to do with global understanding. Dear visitors, here's the truth about America: If you're trailed by a camera crew, you can get just about anything you want.