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'The Kennedys' miniseries: Where JFK meets Michael Jackson

Two big new miniseries, 'The Kennedys' and 'The Borgias,' take on historical figures. But in the end, their story lines might tell us more about the present day than they do about history.

By Staff writer / April 1, 2011

In this publicity image released by ReelzChannel, Greg Kinnear portrays John F. Kennedy in a scene from the eight-part movie, 'The Kennedys,' premiering Sunday.

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Los Angeles

When history meets Hollywood, more often than not, sparks fly. This time, it’s not one but two big, juicy cable TV mini-series, “The Kennedys,” on Reelz and “The Borgias,” on Showtime, debuting this weekend. Both involve political and cultural titans of their time, whose volatile lives are riddled with sexual and political scandals.

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And both have drawn the ire of public figures and institutions who question their historical accuracy. The eight-hour drama about the Camelot clan was originally slated for the History Channel but was abandoned after reported, behind-the-scenes politicking by family members Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy. And Catholic groups have protested the degenerate images of the papacy depicted in “The Borgias,” starring Jeremy Irons as a 15th century pope who had multiple mistresses and allegedly bought his office.

All of which raises the question, how accurate are these shows? Historians differ, but using history as a dramatic subject is “a very, very old tradition," says John Baick, history professor at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass, in an e-mail.

The problem with "historical" series is not that they play fast and loose with historical accuracy – "so did Shakespeare” – but rather that people believe that the dramatic license is the truth, says John Rossi, a history professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia.

JFK and 'JFK'

Many people take their view of the Kennedy assassination “from Oliver Stone's awful film, JFK," he says. "There is no way around this even if there is a notification before the film that liberties were being taken."

What complicates matters, he adds, is that people have increasingly substituted films and television for the reading of history.

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