Despite being buried in work, I managed to catch part of The History Channel’s new mini-series. “America: The Story of Us” is a panorama of four centuries of the nation’s past, the first time in decades that such a project has been undertaken for television.
It’s a very worthy and ambitious effort, and I’m glad to see the network tackling something like this. As I’ve said before, The History Channel can turn out some pretty good original programming when they tear themselves away from aliens, secret societies, and lumberjacks.
One thing that puzzled me, though, was the conspicuous absence of historians among the on-air commentators. For the segment on the origins of the Revolution, the talking heads included Tom Brokaw, Brian Jennings, Colin Powell, Michael Bloomberg, and another fellow identified as a military expert and ex-Navy SEAL. I’m not referring to the narration, mind you, but to the snippets of unscripted commentary interspersed throughout the program, which usually consists of excerpts of interviews with experts in the subject matter.
I’m sure all these guys are very good at what they do. In fact, I try to make it a habit not to offend news anchors, former Secretaries of State, mayors, or Navy SEALs—especially the latter. (One should never offend persons who can open one’s throat with a KA-BAR knife, or who can plant explosive charges near one’s sleeping quarters, if one can help it.)
Still, I can’t imagine why you’d hire a TV news anchor to provide insight during a documentary on early American history. None of these off-the-cuff remarks cast any real light on the material. They were the sort of fluffy, vague, sentimental filler that my students tack onto their essay exams when they’ve run out of anything meaningful to say. Every single interview segment that I saw could have been left on the cutting room floor with no loss whatsoever.
It seemed for all the world like one of those pop culture shows which feature snippets of comedians and D-list celebs commenting on old music videos or offbeat news stories. They’re on the show because they’re recognizable and because they have the gift of gab, not because they’re bringing any expertise to the table. Think “I Love the ’80’s” with a different set of eighties.
I hope the series succeeds. It’s got serious potential, and it’s the kind of large-scale, meaty project that a lot of history buffs would love to see the network do more often. It seems to me, though, that this approach to on-air talent is a misfire.