“It’s not about dates, facts and dead people,” Nancy Dubuc, the president of the History channel, said of the network’s 12-hour docudrama survey of the creation of the United States which was broadcast in the States midway through last year and is now being released on DVD and BluRay. Dubuc was right, in part: the series certainly isn’t a drily academic, unapproachable slog. It’s far worse than that. This is history as reality TV, with all of the dizzying, stupefying technical trappings typical of shows like Ice-Road Truckers (now also a History product). Snap-zooms and snippy editing plague high-contrast recreations of historical events, such as the Donner Party’s excursion to California which accidentally took a non-scenic route via the Sierra Navada, an inhospitable mountain range, and forced some of them to resort to cannibalism.
Not content with merely running roughshod over 400-plus years of the nation’s history, the series’ creators choose to accessorise these recreations with an by famous people and political figures: mid-way through the Donner Party segment, Sheryl Crow is called upon to elucidate the struggle some of the women in the group might have had to endure. Other inexplicable, misplaced ‘luminaries’ include Tim Gunn, Aaron Sorkin, Martha Stewart, John Legend, Melissa Etheridge, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Douglas, Al Sharpton, John Lasseter, Jimmy Wales, and everyone’s favourite walking comb-over, Donald J. Trump. News anchors Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams occupy the most screen time, while throwaway comments from NYC mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg are interspersed with mind-numbing jingoism from as-yet-unindicted war criminals Colin Powell and David Petraeus.
Despite fleeting appearances from academics such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., the series’ overall lack of any kind of authoritative narration coupled with an emphasis on shiny, flashy graphics over archival material betrays its attempt to create a show “for the masses,” i.e., for those who wouldn’t ordinarily watch anything that might possibly be deemed ‘educational,’ lest they actually learn something. Excluding special features, the series runs some 470 minutes in a dozen 45-minute themed episodes—with single-word titles like “Revolution,” “Westward,” and “Superpower”—on three DVDs or Blu-ray discs.
America: the History of the US is out on BluRay and DVD through Magna Home Entertainment.