The cable channel History‘s latest historical venture, America; the Story of Us — a twelve-part, cheap-looking, know-nothing celebrity driven monstrosity that insults the most basic of historically informed Americans intelligence, ended it’s broadcast run last week. The opening episode was the highest rated program in the history of the network attracting 5.7 million viewers, with subsequent episodes in the 2.0 to 2.5 million viewers range.
Abraham Lincoln and P.T. Barnum (you know, “You can fool some of the people some of the time…” and “There a sucker born every minute.”) had it right. It was the huge amount of money spent on advertising that bought those ratings. Ratings of course bring in advertising dollars but to put it bluntly, dog feces still smells bad and is hard to shake off of your foot. This series was the historical documentary equivalent a big steaming pile. In fact numerous Los Angeles-based cable documentary producers have quietly expressed their disdain to me at the poor execution, production values and content of The Story of Us.
The Story of Us was produced by Jane Root an English producer and former Discovery Channel President and BBC executive. So a foreign producer not only got the considerable money for this show but also tells us about us from a decidedly British, ill-informed and surface, slop politically correct point of view. At a time when American cable producers are starving for work, History shows their true colors by enriching an English company with a major series on our history. Most of the terribly produced reenactments were actually shot in Great Britain and South Africa, standing in for the good old USA!
History had numerous far better filmed and authentic looking reenactments in their vault made by American producers like Craig Haffner’s Greystone Productions and Gary Foreman’s Native Sun Productions. Producers who can no longer get the time of day at the now reality-driven History who would rather show dumbed-down, contrived tripe like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. They should have just bumped those American producer’s footage up to High Definition and saved themselves time and money and got it right.
In the interest of fair disclosure, I wrote and co-wrote several shows for Native Son Productions like The Battle of New Orleans and Boone & Crockett. I defy anyone with half a brain and a decent eye and ear for top quality historical programming to not score those shows as far better than The Story of Us in visuals, content, historical accuracy and production values.
Partially told through the slant of American commercialism and technology The Story of Us most often utilizes know-nothing non-experts like Donald Trump, Melissa Ethridge, P. Diddy, Bill Maher, Michael Douglas, Sheryl Crow and even Pawn Stars patriarch Richard Harrison. Only Generals Colin Powell and David Petraeus, historian H. W. Brands and a very few others loan any air of knowledgeable dignity to the proceedings.
Comedian Margaret Cho was tapped to talk about the Chinese laborers who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad – didn’t anyone check, she’s Korean! Al Sharpton and Henry Lewis Gates certainly didn’t lend any air of accuracy or legitimacy to the historical proceedings. Most of the celebrities wind up sounding like the verbal equivalent of a deer stuck in the headlights, as if they were just given a printout from the pages of the book that the producers wanted regurgitated.
The series even violates its own standards. Take for instance the story of Timothy Murphy, the frontier rifleman who changed the course of the American Revolution. In 1777 at the battle of Saratoga, he shot British General Simon Fraser at a distance of over 200 yards with his early Kentucky Rifle ensuring an American victory. The English filmed reenactment of the event is so amateurish looking that it might have been culled from a bad episode of NBC’s 1960s Daniel Boone series which was at least entertaining. Murphy isn’t even shown with the unique double-barreled swivel breach flintlock rifle he used. The system allowed the skilled rifleman to flip a toggle and change to a second loaded barrel for another quick shot.
In a show that supposedly features exceptional American technology there is no mention of this unique American made weapon. There are actually contemporary American flintlock rifle makers who still make swivel-breach flintlocks today. I guess the English producers couldn’t find their way to these skilled American artisans who live and work in flyover country. Just as surprising there is no mention that Murphy’s feat importantly reverberated all the way to Paris where the American victory at Saratoga helped Ben Franklin convince the on-the-fence French to finally support our Revolution with gold, guns and troops.
The series computer-generated graphics were continually recycled and poorly conceived in the first place with an eye towards grabbing a channel surfing thirteen-year-old boy. Every time a new group of settlers or immigrants cross the Atlantic it’s the same boring under the water CGI shot of the same ship’s hulls racing through crystal clear water. The buffalo herd looks like a bunch of furry cockroaches and one historian described the horde of wagons heading West as the “stampede of the covered wagon RV’s.”
Custer’s Last Stand is filmed with merely eight or nine horsemen in phony looking uniforms riding over a hilltop, that was either in South Africa or Northern England, and firing a few shots. Of course the white eyes are still the bad guys despite the preponderance of well-researched books that have repatriated Custer for more then twenty years now. And the Indians (that’s right, I don’t use that silly Native American title) in the series, both eastern and western are downright insulting in their laughably inaccurate looking clothing, hairstyles and accouterments.
History wants to provide copies of this abominable series to schools nation wide. So start monitoring your kid’s history classes and put up a fuss. History‘s Story of Us isn’t the story of America, but the story of what we are not.