Review: The Joseph Smith Papers Television Documentary Series, Season 1 (DVD Set)

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Those of us in Utah were treated, beginning near the end of 2007, to a TV series created by and aired on Larry H. Miller-owned KJZZ TV about the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It began with a pilot episode (“A Television Forward”), followed by a regular weekly schedule that started in early 2008, showing a new episode each Sunday night followed by a repeat of the previous week’s episode.

People outside of Utah, upon hearing about it, immediately began wondering when (or even if) they would have a chance to see the series. It was quickly ascertained that KJZZ would not be providing it for viewing on their web site as some hoped, but eventually BYUTV picked it up. Today, season 1 can be watched on BYUTV and Utah viewers can see season 2 (now in reruns) on KJZZ. And now (as of 2009), season 1 is available on a 7 disc DVD set from Deseret Book.

The set contains 52 episodes, numbered from 0 to 51, which are about one half hour each, except for number 0 which was the longer pilot that was aired ahead of time. A booklet is included that gives a brief summary of each episode and lists the contributing scholars, along with an index. Unfortunately, it does not state which DVDs contain which episodes, so I ended up noting that myself in my copy. Each DVD contains a message at the beginning apologizing that the sound and video quality are not always perfect, but the one big drawback of this set is a total lack of closed captions. Anyone that can’t hear will not be able to watch it, and even for those of us who are able to hear, it would have been nice to be able to read what is being said at times, particularly when trying to take notes.

Season 1 is filmed at historic sites as well as in a studio, using visual aids ranging from photographs, to paintings, to the actual writings of Joseph Smith and others. It includes interviews with scholars such as Ronald Barney, Richard Bushman, Steven Harper, Richard Turley, Richard Anderson, Larry Porter, Milton Backman, Robin Jensen, Jeffrey Walker, Jill Derr, Royal Skousen, Mark Staker, Dean Jessee, Carol Madsen, and many others.

In the pilot episode, Ronald Esplin (managing editor of The Joseph Smith Papers) said, “I think in today’s world, every Latter-day Saint will encounter things about Joseph Smith they didn’t know before. We have an informational overload – informational access – that has never been available before, and to the degree that Latter-day Saints are left only with what they learn at Pioneer Day, they are going to be vulnerable, because there is so much more to learn. And I think it’s very important that we come to a true understanding of our history, and of our people, that involves dealing with all the issues, and dealing with all the personalities, and doing it broadly so that we understand our own heritage, and then we will not be overturned by some new little fact that we didn’t have room for in our scheme, because we prepared ourselves to look at the whole picture.”

Many of the other episodes in the series are spent giving us this understanding, beginning with familiarizing us with early 19th century America and Joseph Smith’s heritage and local environment, and then going through many of the events in Joseph’s life and the history of the church, and then his death and the aftermath. A good job was done in many areas where the church has been accused by critics of hiding information. For example, the different versions of the First Vision are discussed, and there is a very good history and explanation given of the Book of Abraham and associated papyri.

However, one weakness that stuck out to me was that the discussion of plural marriage was not as thorough as it might have been. The host, Glenn Rawson, was kind enough to answer my question about that: “Our discussion of Plural marriage was limited of necessity. We could only say what we could prove by reliable documentation and only a small portion of that. It was the first in-depth broadcast statement on the subject of plural marriage that had been done under Church auspices. We tried to be careful and circumspect.” Indeed, it is significant that plural marriage was discussed to the depth that it was.

There are a couple of episodes devoted to a roundtable discussion featuring members of the Papers staff explaining what the project is all about, and the significance for members and nonmembers alike. There is an episode about the medical aspects of Joseph’s leg operation. Separate episodes are devoted to the revelations and sermons of Joseph Smith, respectively. There are also episodes covering Joseph’s encounters with the law.

To give an example of some interesting points covered in a typical episode, in episode 7 (“The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon”) we are told that in the early 20th century, a farmer filled in the depression on the hill where the plates had been stored, because he was tired of people coming on his land to see it. It is pointed out that those who knew Joseph best believed him the most. And we are told that Joseph said he could see anything through seer stones.

There is much to learn about the history of the Church up through the 1840s, and this DVD set does a good job of helping to provide a foundation for more in-depth learning, and “to look at the whole picture.” It also helps the viewer have a better understanding of some of what is being published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers. This set would be excellent for use in Family Home Evening, as well as for personal study. Season 2 will also be out on DVD shortly, which Rawson told me covers some of the potentially troubling issues more thoroughly, and he also mentioned that season 3, entitled “History of the Saints: Gathering to the West” will begin airing on KSL and KIDK (Idaho Falls) TV the weekend of General Conference in October.