'America: The Story of Us' gives a vivid docudrama sheen to US history

The History channel’s 'America: The Story of Us' premiers its six-part series this Sunday.

Charlie Sperring/AETN
Actors play Pilgrims at Plymouth colony in the new history channel series 'America: The Story of Us.'
Charlie Sperring/AETN
Actors play Powhattan Indians, near Jamestown settlement, in the new history channel series 'America: The Story of Us.'

The cable channel now simply known as History returns to its roots as a traditional source of the grand historical narrative this Sunday night when it launches its most ambitious effort to date, a 12-hour, six-part survey covering 400 years of American history.

“America: The Story of Us” debuts with a lead-in from no less a figure than President Obama, extolling the virtues that make up the American character and encouraging Americans to help shape the nation’s future through understanding a shared past.

“Our American story has never been inevitable,” the president says in the introduction. “It was made possible by ordinary people who kept their moral compass pointed straight and true when the way seemed treacherous, when the climb seemed steep, and when the future seemed uncertain. People who recognized a fundamental part of our American character: that we can remake ourselves – and our nation – to fit our larger dreams.”

The filmmakers clearly hope to tap a resonance between early settlers and the headlines of today, from reminding viewers of the Mayflower settlers yearning for religious freedoms, as well as their partnership with one tribe of Indians that helped to wipe out a rival tribe of native Americans, to the early tobacco farmers in Jamestown and the first black Americans, including the first to die in the Boston Massacre. The early militia’s fateful encounters with British redcoats, not to mention the first tea party activists in Boston Harbor are but a few more of the same lines clearly drawn from the present day to our past.

Other themes, such as the importance of the free distribution of information pop up as viewers are reminded that the colonists’ rebellion thrived on the back of a sophisticated network of freely and swiftly shared news.

With its quick snapshot of hundreds of years of history, punctuated by talking head interviews with celebrities such as actor Michael Douglas and former military commander Colin Powell, the series is clearly geared toward a younger generation. Its rat-a-tat CGI re-enactments could make the older viewer wish for some of documentarian Ken Burns’s contemplative violin and banjo music over actual historical documents. But clearly the producers know their target market – they plan to distribute the DVD to “every school and accredited college” in the United States and hope to develop a curriculum for teachers in partnership with the Library of Congress.

Whether or not the country’s teachers really need more civics class textbook materials based on a television show remains to be seen. But, says Fordham University’s Paul Levinson, the basic facts are one thing, “a compelling narrative will make the lesson far more meaningful.”

As for President Obama lending his imprimatur to a commercial TV show, Mr. Levinson points out that as our national “dignitary in chief,” it’s entirely appropriate for the president to take part in a show about our shared cultural heritage. “After all,” he adds, “the president throws out the first ball of the baseball season and that is most certainly a commercial venture, but it’s also our national pastime.”

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