“He Was a Little Bit Better Than the Rest of Us”

Those are the words of that great American historian…umm…I mean news anchor, Brian Williams, on Abraham Lincoln.  Who the hell knows what he is talking about.  I caught a few snippets of History’s recent series, “America: The Story of Us” and was disappointed on every level.  Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting much, maybe something with a little more history content than Ice Road Drivers Truckers and Pawn Stars.  This little video on Lincoln sums up the fundamental flaws of this series.

First, who cares what Brian Williams, Soledad O’Brien, Michael Strahan, and Michael Douglas think about Abraham Lincoln and, for that matter, how exactly are they qualified to speak about anything having to do with American history?  According to O’Brien, Lincoln had a couple of conversations with Frederick Douglass before deciding to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  From Strahan we learn that Lincoln stuck to his beliefs when they weren’t popular.  O.K….I get it.  Even the historian, H.W. Brands, sounds like a complete fool and I’ve enjoyed his books in the past.  According to Brands, there was nothing in Lincoln’s early life that would have pointed to the presidency, as if this were the case with any of our presidents.  Talk about narrative gone bad.  What I find truly hilarious is that the most coherent and historically based commentary in this short segment comes from none other than Rev. Al Sharpton.  If Sharpton had qualified his point regarding Lincoln’s position on black suffrage to a select and educated few he would have nailed it.

I have no problem with including high profile figures for entertainment purposes or even just to get a sense of how certain individuals remember the past, but the extent of their involvement took away from opportunities to actually at times examine the fundamental historical questions of what happened and why.

The most disturbing part of this series was the way in which Bank of America’s commercials supported the narrative.  Actually, at times it felt as if the series itself was the extended commercial for Bank of America.  Obviously, the company spent a great deal of money as the sponsor for the series, but when you have difficulty telling the difference between the program and the commercial you know you are in trouble.

It’s not impossible to produce a quality history documentary that is both entertaining and informative.  In fact, I think History pulled it off with their program on “Sherman’s March.”  [Click here for my review of the program.]  Unfortunately, this was nothing more than fluff.  I ordered a free copy of the series for my school, but I doubt that I will ever use it in my classroom.

17 thoughts on ““He Was a Little Bit Better Than the Rest of Us”

  1. Mark Snell

    Hey, perhaps Michael Strahan learned Civil War history through mental transference — I coached him in a soccer league for 8-10 year olds in 1979 when I was stationed in Germany. He was so big, the opposing players were afraid to go near him!

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  2. Robert Moore

    Ha ha! What did I say in an earlier comment… it’s more about the delivery… or the deliverer… than the history. So true with this series! Incredible waste of time watching it… I think I would have gained more from watching repeats of North and South, or the Blue and the Gray, of course, they also qualify as forms of torture.

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    1. Dan Wright

      I think the History Channel was trying to make a hit TV show. Lots of sizzle and very little steak.
      And that’s the dilemma of the electronic media – how do you attract a big audience and really cover anything in depth.
      I was scratching my head over choices like Michael Douglas to comment on American history.
      Someone should whisper into the producer’s ear “James McPherson.”

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      1. Robert Moore

        I’m curious about how much the series actually cost the channel formerly known as “The History Channel” and how much of that was spent on the guest appearances and voice-overs. I can understand the effort made, as they were trying to put familiar faces on the screen to draw in a new crowd interested in history. At the same time, however, they aren’t doing any justice to the viewers who are already into history… looking to a channel called “History” for… history. Which leads to another question (considering the errors)… I wonder who the consultants were and if they were really consulted that much, or if their names appear as consultants to satisfy a need to show some level of credibility.

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  3. Kristen

    My thoughts exactly. Bruce Jenner was a commentator on the one after the Civil War episode, called “Heartland.” I made it most of the way through the Civil War and part way through the next before I could look away from the train wreck appearing on the screen. And what’s worse, is I had a student suggest the series to me! He’s no longer in one of my courses or I could hope to set him straight.

    One of the commentators I actually thought was “useful” was Margaret Cho. She only had a line but delivered it well; of course, she was the talking head addressing Chinese laborers building the transcontinental railroad, and she’s Korean herself. They just needed a token Asian, apparently.

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  4. Kristen

    P.S. I thought of you at the end of the CW episode, where the narrator said something like, “and then, after the war, we were united again” (cue cheesy music). It’s as if Reconstruction never happened!

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  5. Ron

    My sentiments exactly. That show was very poorly done. I watched (or rather suffered through) two episodes before giving up. They got a lot wrong, or just simply failed to tell it. And the reenactment scene shown on a loop throughout was disorienting to say the least. It looked like they filmed the scene in a California forest. The uniforms were a little off as well. Why did we need to see endless computer animation of a Minie ball leaving a Springfield and how it penetrated the body? And don’t get me started on the platitiudes of the celebs. Recently I had the chance to meet Ken Burns at the National Archives premiere of the “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit, and told him how TV had gone so far astray from his wonderful Civil War documentary. Burns commented how he got more viewers and didn’t have to be flashy and dumb things down.

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    1. Ryan

      A little off on the uniforms? It looked like an 8th grade play with a costume budget that would make a porn director blush. Maybe its just the campaigner in me but it was God awful. That alone made it supremely difficult for me to even watch any of it. As a result, I have no idea what most of you are talking about because I found the lack of devotion to accuracy not worth my time.

      Anyway, with that rant done, on to my next one. Why oh why does the History channel insist on becoming the new TLC? Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, UFO Hunters, Monster Quest, etc, etc, etc. I enjoy many of the Modern Marvels, but they too are a big part of the problem. The last quality programming History put out there was WWII in HD. Man, that might have been the best program that History has ever done, and its amazing that they actually attempted it considering the current line of programming.

      The only show I consistently watch on History is Civil War Journal on Tuesday mornings at 6am. I don’t even get to watch it since its soo freakin early. After all, it doesn’t make a lick of sense to show quality historical programs during the day or primetime anymore on a channel called History right?

      Ok, rants over.

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  6. Dr. Sisco

    You are so right about Bank of America – I suffered through this mess so that I can be
    prepared to repair the damages to my students next semester.

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  7. Crashman

    I’m not a historian, but I was really disappointed by this series. Of the few episodes I watched, the most egregious omission, if I remember correctly, was the Mexican war. They didn’t mention it at all.How can you possibly talk about westward expansion without talking about this conflict? They made it seem like the US just inevitably spread out from ocean to ocean.

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  8. Nat Turners Son

    I have watched most of them and I feel the same a most of you it is a waste of time. You would think something called the History Channel would get Historians to do a show like this not actors and such.

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  9. Elizabeth

    I thank you for bringing this up – I have not seen any of the series, but have heard quite a bit. What I’ve heard is enough to make me not want to watch. It’s such a shame that the History Channel, that has the resources and platform to do great work in the telling of history, would produce such a show. I cringe at the thought of students across America viewing this in classrooms — Is this how we want to teach history? Through the speculative commentary of pop culture icons? If what they were trying to achieve was a way to engage audiences with these actors/musicians/public figures, it is poorly executed to the extent of creating a show that has little legitimacy. Like I said, I haven’t watched any of the show, so some of my observations might be off, but I appreciate you bringing this topic up.

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  10. Toby

    Yes, poor-to-mediocre stuff. I am just relieved it is not an absolute disaster. A bizarre array of “expert commentary”, but nothing ferociously egregious. I mean, they could have had Thomas Dilorenzo to give “balance” to the narrative!

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  11. Kim B.

    I am so happy you did a post about this. I downloaded a free teaser of the series from iTunes, because it was free (my favorite price) and I was curious, but even the 5 minute long video I got was enough to make me almost nauseous. The History Channel’s choice of interviewees was sub-par at best, and it leads me to believe that if they had all read a book all about science, we’d see the same commentators talking on ‘The Universe’ or ‘Planet Earth’ as well. Plus, of the comments I watched, most were just vague and romanticized one liners about how brave and resilient Americans are. This show makes me sad.

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