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Perhaps the truest criticism of the series is offered up by Nick, who was educated in a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales before attending Oxford and is now an engineering professor in Madison, Wis. Complaining of the tiny slivers of a life that make it into the movie every seven years, he wonders: “Is that all there is to us?” He rejects the idea that the film truly conveys the lives of its subjects, but, in a larger sense, he says, the participants represent Everyman.
I think he’s both right and wrong. Certainly a primary appeal of the “Up” series is the way it allows us to see ourselves, whatever our station, in these people. For those of us who have been with the series from early on, a kind of parallel existence has grown up between us and them.
But what gives the series its force is not just its universality but also its particularity. These grown-ups may be Everyman, but they are also singular. If the “Up” movies are reality TV, they are its most transcendent expression. Apted doesn’t try to force his interviewees into unnatural situations. He allows their lives to play out however they do. “56 Up” may lack the life-changing dynamic that characterized some of the earlier editions, but that’s appropriate to the life cycle. The quotidian existence is presented without apology. Grade: A- (Unrated.)