Monday, May 3, 2010
"America: The Story of Us" Review it for me!
When I learned of this miniseries I hoped for the best. "America" is a great, complex nation with a riveting, dramatic history. This miniseries, however, "seldom rises above middle-school sophistication.
To further define history downward, there are the "drizzled celebrity comments" which include Sheryl Crow, Michael Douglas, P. Diddy, (Puff Daddy, Sean Combs, or is it just plain Diddy?), Meryl Streep, Martha Stewart, et al. Why?
Some make a little more sense because they represent a certain "type" of American: Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Tom Brokaw (at least he's written an inspirational book on America's greatest generation) and I guess Martha Stewart and Diddy could fit in this group as a special type of entrepreneur.
But Variety gets it right about the celebrity comments "which play like an entirely separate program, one where various luminaries discuss what's unique about the American character. Unfortunately, the grafting process proves awkward, often making the celebs appear kind of dense, and History (the channel, not the study) look like it's pandering, which of course, it is."
The miniseries is generous with its CGI. But visual impact just can't substitute for creative content. And the American story lends itself most easily to creative twists. Our national story is
-full of irony,
-hidden class conflicts,
-high crimes and misdemeanors,
-abundant heroism and knavery,
-inventiveness and greed,
-the shedding of fraternal blood and brilliant attempts to create a benevolent empire,
-unique understandings of how church and state reinforce one another,
-fertile new forms of voluntary association like labor unions, Kiwanis clubs, bowling leagues, Eagle Scouts, and home grown cults like Mormonism, Christian Science and Scientology
-massive, far-sighted engineering projects like the Erie Canal and trans-continental railroads,
-welcome to immigrants and endurance of the KKK,
-philosophic schools like pragmatism and transcendentalism, and
-international contributions to human civilization like the automobile, the electric light, the First Amendment, Coca Cola, dynamic random access memory, Scrabble, McDonalds, napalm, Pat Robertson, Preparation-H, Hollywood, the flow chart, the Franklin stove, radio carbon dating, Motown, and Madonna.
With conflict, content, and characters like this, it takes real effort to scale back the storytelling so that something like the Chicago fire resembles a marshmallow roast or the California gold rush sounds like a sale at WalMarts. Couldn't the scriptwriters have spent time with Paul Johnson's bristling insights in History of the American People or Allen Guelzo's narrative eloquence in his lecture series, "The American Mind"?
Washington Post review illustrates (there's a trailer there as well): "When the First Continental Congress meets in the late 18th century, the future of the 13 American colonies 'hangs in the balance'. DeWitt Clinton, who conceived of the Erie Canal, was the kind of guy who refused to 'take no for an answer.' And fortunately for hearty New England whalers who set out to harvest blubber- and oil- they had 'state-of-the-art' harpoons at their disposal.'
"One whale to another: 'Yo, Moby! What's going on? I hear they got state-of-the-art harpoons now. Not just sharp ones or big one!'
"Other whale: 'What kind of 'art' can there be to a pointy damn stick? It either penetrates your blubber, or it doesn't.'
"First whale: 'Well, I don't know, but that's what the narrator said. And it's Liev Schreiber, big-time actor.'
"Other whale: 'Guess they couldn't get Oprah, huh?'"
That's not actual dialogue but I thought it might be necessary to say so given how lamely some of the dramatic reenactments come off.
There is also a remarkable melding of content and commerciality. Here's just one example I noticed tonight. As the program described America's westward expansion, it rightly pointed out the important role commerce played. In fact, commerce exploded with the construction of the Erie Canal and the opening to the west. The storyline continues and we're told that the canal was financed by the State Bank of New York which today is known as Bank of America and it is still generating prosperity westward. Hear a spokeswoman from California's Mendocino State College as she describes the solar panels financed through Bank of America that saves the college 300k a year. It took me at least 15-30 seconds before I realized I was watching a commercial. Very clever and a bit creepy.
Believe me, I am glad for underwriters and sponsors but broadcasters have a moral, and in many cases, a legal obligation to signal when particular content is originating from an advertiser, sponsor or underwriter. Thankfully, the LA Times has commented on this feature of the miniseries.
at 12:21 AM