America the Story of Us -- TV Review



A series like this, which purports to show the sweep of U.S. history from the days of the first European settlers, would have been so much easier to make a couple of generations ago. Up until relatively recently, there was a national consensus regarding who were the good guys and who were not.

For most of our history, we were not troubled by Founding Fathers who were slave-holders. There was no troubling inconsistency just because only white, Christian men who owned land got to vote or that westward expansion came at the expense of American Indians or that the hallowed separation of church and state was honored mainly in the breach.

But now those wretched contradictions can't be swept aside so easily. Thus, "America the Story of Us," an ambitious 12-hour series to be introduced by President Obama and given free to every classroom, has a difficult decision to make at every turn: Whose version of history will this be?

As the Texas Board of Education demonstrated recently, there is more pressure than ever to revise history to make it conform to personal political inclinations. The decisions that we make in this regard tell us at least as much about ourselves as our forebears.

Furthermore, though 12 hours is an eternity given TV's attention span, it is only one hour longer than Ken Burns spent on the Civil War alone. He would be the first to tell you that fascinating parts of that story were left on the cutting-room floor.

Based only on the first hour, which is all the History Channel provided for review, there is much to praise and criticize about this new history lesson, executive produced by Jane Root, former president of Discovery.

To its credit, much of colonial history is properly explained by economic forces, from the profitability of tobacco to the slave trade. It was these economic factors, more than heroism, idealism and spirituality, that whetted colonial appetites for independence. Locke and Rousseau had their place -- though not in this series -- but the real impetus for change was the imposition of unwelcome taxes by a distant authority.

Traditionally, blacks in colonial times are described as slaves or not described at all. This series, at several key junctures, points out that blacks also were colonial patriots and that many were prosperous and free. Correcting this glaring omission was overdue, even if other minorities like Jews receive no mention.

Praiseworthy, too, is the restrained use of re-enactments and the effective use of CGI effects, which signal viewers that this is not some retelling of musty facts and dates.

Given the grand sweep of American history, it is inevitable that key events would get short shrift or be ignored entirely. For instance, don't look for even a mention of the French and Indian War or the Salem Witch Trials.

Hard choices had to be made, but there is no obvious justification for allocating precious time to comments from people with little or no insight or expertise. Given how little Ann Coulter or Al Sharpton contribute to the understanding of contemporary issues, it seems a colossal waste of time to have them ruminate about the past. Others with seemingly nothing but a name to lend to this project include Donald Trump, Sean Combs, George Lopez and Richard Harrison of History's "Pawn Stars." It's enough to make one wonder whether Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian weren't available?

That said, it's nice -- even admirable -- that someone in the vast TV universe believes that providing Americans important information about their history and government is not the exclusive province of PBS.

Airdate: 9-11 p.m. Sunday, April 25 (History)
Production: Nutopia
Narrator: Liev Schreiber
Executive producer: Jane Root
Series producers: Kathryn Taylor, Ben Fox
Producer-director: Nick Green
Showrunner: Ben Goold
Production manager: Claire Bugden
Author: Kevin Baker
Director of photography: Giulio Biccari
Music: Anne Nikitin
Set decorator: Andrew McCarthy
Casting: Janet Meintjies
Historical consultants: Daniel Walker Howe, David M. Kennedy