Review of 'America: The Story of Us': TV miniseries has flash but not creativity

The History Channel has produced a 12-part series on the country's 400-year history, with more bells and whistles than a Fourth of July celebration.
By Tom Shales
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Its intentions seem basically worthy, its execution moderately adroit, its scope ambitious and its pictures? Oooh, pretty!

What more, one well might wonder, could be asked of "America: The Story of Us," a whiz-bang, high-tech documentary miniseries airing in six two-hour blocks starting at 9 p.m. Sunday on cable's History Channel?

Actually, we don't have to wonder, because it's sometimes annoyingly obvious. Crucial scarcities include creative imagination, narrative eloquence and dramatic impact. Some measurable amount of conceptual sophistication would have been welcome, and a good deal less huffery, puffery and gimmickry.

What "America" could most use less of: cliches, trite little phrases that come at you like black balls from a musket, except that here those tend to come in slow motion, right at your face, when the guns are being fired ostensibly at the British by our valorous foreparents organized into -- what else? -- "a ragtag militia." Slo-mo muskets are but part of a vast battery of special effects deployed to make this 12-part American history lesson visually distinctive and kinetically compelling, but snappy visuals should supplement a clever, eloquent script -- not replace it.

The cliches are beyond plentiful; they're everywhere. America's Civil War was, it seems, "the fight for the soul of a nation," though an attempt to prevent violence at Harpers Ferry was a matter of "too little, too late."

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 ones!"

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?"

No, that is not actual dialogue from the show; the producers haven't gone that far. But there's plenty of gimmickry, mostly CGI effects. And a small company of notables has been assembled to contribute sound bites along the way, though sometimes the logic behind a certain star's appearance at a certain time remains vague. Then again, maybe P. Diddy is as competent as anyone to speak about the virtues of the American worker, who was determined to work harder than counterparts in other countries, Diddy reports.

Other celebrities who pop up and quickly pop down again include Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, Sheryl Crow, Colin Powell, Donald Trump, Buzz Aldrin, Martha Stewart, Al Sharpton (at his most dignified), current New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, current NBC News anchor Brian Williams and previous NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.

Acknowledging that none of these is a particular expert on American history, the channel says that the celebrities "speak from the heart" and "share their thoughts about being American." One of Brokaw's comments is positioned to reflect upon the Boston Tea Party and the American character: "When someone comes along and spanks us," Brokaw says, "we don't turn the other cheek."

Among narrator Schreiber's duties is the recitation of fun facts (to borrow from one of David Letterman's "Late Show" features) that essentially amount to useless information: American colonists, it seems, were on the average two inches taller than their counterparts in Europe, 20 percent richer than corresponding Europeans and twice as likely to live into adulthood.

Pilgrims arriving in North America early in the 17th century faced 50 billion trees, 60 million bison and 9 million square miles of "vast American wilderness." And let's not forget what happened in 300 million years BC: A meteorite as big as Central Park plowed into the Earth and created -- ta-da! -- the Cumberland Gap.

Maybe you had to be there.

In truth, some of the CGI-created effects, especially scenes of nature and wilderness and early settlements, are nicely done, though using a kind of neon snake to represent advancing settlement is too much a sci-fi (or Syfy) touch. Commendably, too, this is not another whitewash of our history; there is no attempt to play down the evil tragedy of slavery and its impact on a people and their nation.

The ugly realities are faced, as they should be.

Whether "America" with all the CGI tricks will set a new standard purely in production terms for documentaries is possible -- although it's hard to imagine public television's austere and thoughtful Ken Burns using animated monsters or replicated revolutionaries to tell his moving historical tales.

The notion of things never being the same again -- probably the most frequently repeated of "America's" cliches -- certainly gets pounded into a viewer's head. Clinton's canal "will change everything," Schreiber says, and only moments later he predicts that the canal "will change New York forever."

But the font of foreverness has only begun to flow.

In 1610, a ship arrives with "a cargo that will change America forever," and later we learn that however momentous Paul Revere's ride was, "what happens next will transform the world forever!" Meanwhile "how Boston reacts" to the death of Crispus Attucks "will change the course of history" too.

Maybe everything that happens changes the course of something. Or maybe nothing that happens changes the course of anything. Simply saying "everything changed forever" is really a substitute for thinking, not an example of it, but then "America: The Story of Us" is basically a poor excuse for a documentary -- even if it succeeds on the superficial level of, say, a lava lamp.

America: The Story of Us (two hours) premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on the History Channel.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company