Grade: B
Entire family: No
2018, 320 min. (12 episodes), Color
Biography-Documentary
PBS
Not rated (would be PG for some language)
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s a nice idea—profiling highly successful people to try to nail down what it was that made the difference—but Breaking Big ultimately is more fascinating than it is a template for how to break big yourself.

For this PBS biographical series, host Carlos Watson sought out and interviewed phenomenally successful people who had a breakthrough moment that made all the difference in the world. Featured here are all 12 celebrities from Season 1:

—South African comedian Trevor Noah, whose quick rise landed him the plum job of Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show.

—Restaurateur, TV host, and author Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat), who turned a passion for cooking and his Asian-American upbringing into a best selling book and other successes.

Danai Gurira, a Zimbabwe native whose play about her African heritage brought her acclaim and led to roles on The Walking Dead and Black Panther.

Jason Aldean, who trusted his nonstandard rock-infused approach to country music and made it big.

—SoulCycle founder Ruth Zukerman, who turned a passion for stationary biking into a highly successful business and branched off with another creation, FlyWheel.

Roxane Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants who became a leading voice, worldwide, for the modern feminist movement with her essay collection Bad Feminist.

Good Morning America co-host Michael Strahan, whose drive led him not only to a Hall of Fame pro football career, but a second career as a sports commentator and TV host.

—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who filled Hillary Clinton’s vacated New York seat and became a voice for women’s rights by following her own conscience and passion.

—Director Lee Daniels (The Butler, Empire), who went from West Philly to Hollywood in no time at all.

—Former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who sued Roger Ailes and Fox for sexual harassment and became a voice of justice for women in the workplace.

Christian Siriano, who followed his passion for fashion all the way to Project Runway, and afterwards parlayed his win into a career that would change the way designers responded to women who weren’t built like models.

—Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, the San Juan leader who fought a U.S. Government that was slow to respond to a catastrophic hurricane.

All are no-nonsense dynamos who are borderline (if not spot on the line) workaholics and perfectionists. All of them have tireless energy and passion, and none of them are worried about failure. Individually and collectively their biographies are compelling—by turns, entertaining, informative, and inspirational. But I wouldn’t say that host and executive producer Watson manages to unlock the secrets of what enabled each of them to “break big.”

Yet, there’s advice here for people wanting to break big themselves. Some advise taking the initiative. “If you wait for people to tell you it’s your turn, you’ll never get it,” Noah said in his segment. You’ve got to be confident, brash, and assertive. For Huang, it was the wake-up call he got after he enjoyed some success but then failed. “Really woke me up. . . You better be serious, you better be detailed,” he said. You can’t do anything halfway or halfheartedly. It takes total hands-on involvement to make any venture successful, and that means sacrifice. For others, it was being in the right place at the right time. Still others credited all of the people that supported them on their way up. Strahan said his father always said “when,” not “if”—when you get to the pros, when you get into the Hall of Fame—and that mentality carried over.

But there’s no denying that to have any sort of “breaking big” there has to be talent, or genius, or at least supreme competency. That kind of flies in the face of Watson’s goal of trying to pinpoint that breakthrough moment, presumably so the rest of us who haven’t broken through can figure things out and maybe make the big leap ourselves. Given the theme, you have to wonder about the selections, though. If it’s truly an attempt to pinpoint a moment or dynamic in time that can lead to success, doesn’t it imply a takeaway for audiences wanting to break big themselves? And if so, wouldn’t that audience be, say, in the teen through twentysomething age range? Given that, some of Watson’s choices are curious.

The sad fact is that not everyone has the level of talent it takes to make it big, or the inventive/creative genius to make something, whether it’s a product, a work of art, or a significant contribution to society. Still, it’s hard not to find some inspiration in these 12 success stories, or, at the very least, to take a good long look in the mirror and decide if you’re working hard or long enough, whether you’ve gone all out instead of playing it safe, and whether you’ve got the potential to seize the moment when it presents itself.

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