The “Matrix” of History-The problem with “America: The Story of Us”

Every basic cable channel in America can be summed up in one sentence. 

They consist of hours of reality programming punctuated by hours of reruns of popular programs that have little, if anything, to do with the stated theme of the channel.

I’ve just described Arts & Entertainment (A&E), Bravo, Music Television (MTV), VH1, The Food Network, The Travel Channel, Fine Living Channel, Discovery, Lifetime, TLC, Home and Garden Television (HGTV), and finally The History Channel.

Oh, I’m sorry, it’s now called simply History—as its original glorious programming is relegated to the ash heap of said place.

To understand how far this warhorse of a channel has fallen, look at its most popular programs: Ice Road Truckers, Modern Marvels, and Pawn Stars.  They are, in point of fact, pretty good shows.  Yet with the exception of the last one, how in the hell does any history fit into them?  Did the ice road truckers find fossils to substantiate the Land Bridge theory of Native migration some 10,000 years ago?  How exactly does American civilization benefit from knowing how a Pop-Tart is made?

Finally, how the hell is there so much 17th-19th century ordinance in Nevada?  Those guys on Pawn Stars collect enough antique guns to field a squad of minutemen against the pit bosses at the Flamingo.

The old-school history-heads like myself, who loved to watch Luftwaffe dogfights ad nauseum on the old A&E before the advent of the History Channel, felt cast off and abandoned.  Which is why we were so excited at the beginning of History’s new miniseries America: The Story of Us.

Yet even here, it seems that the whiz-bang pace of reality shows and video games have infiltrated American history.

I won’t go into detail about the number one offense of this show: the relentless parade of celebrities that have absolutely nothing to do with American history.  Let’s show the battle of Saratoga and “poof!” out comes Michael Douglas with some platitude about the American spirit.  Last night’s use of former NY Giant Michael Strahan in the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight was particularly dreadful: the only German Strahan ever pummeled was maybe Ben Roethlisberger on a good day.

Instead, I feel the great injustice of this series is but one: the Matrix-like bullet shot.

We all are at least somewhat familiar with the Matrix series of films: a sci-fi (sort of) trilogy of films long on special effects and short on any believable plot.  The defining moment of the series is a scene where the main character, Neo (played by “cough” master thespian Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets in slow motion through an acrobatic arc of his body—probably computer generated.

Ever since, the bullet shot has become a staple in action films, either missing or hitting their targets.  America, to my chagrin, also decided that to lure the young, high-testosterone set required not one, but multiple shots of the Matrix-variety at a couple of points in our history.

At Lexington and Concord, for example, the low-velocity, non-spinning, handmade, misshapen musket ball is seen from the barrel, hurtling towards its target—the shoulder of a Massachusetts minuteman.  Fast forward to Saratoga, and a Continental sniper fires three shots, two misses and a hit, at British general Simon Fraser.  The framing, slow musket ball shots, and stop-motion zoom seem right out of a video game.  Believe me, a musket ball to the chest is not as fun.

Even more insidious is the bullet shot during the Civil War scenes.  Before the Minie ball flies out of the Model 1861 Springfield musket towards an unsuspecting Reb, there’s a shot of a Union soldier sighting his target as if he were using a fucking Norden bombsight.  Yankee soldiers on the attack rarely had the time to scope their targets with such accuracy, especially with the crappy stick sights on the muskets.

The one point of honesty in the whole process is the computer-generated X-ray footage of what a soft lead low-velocity bullet does to the human body.  The Minie ball was a little bulldozer, obliterating bone, sinew and muscle, making any real recovery impossible.  To put it in comparison, a single round from a modern M16 rifle has a steel jacket at a high speed, which slices through you like a scissor.  Neither of these are very pleasant, but chances are better you’ll recover from the latter.

(Modern sanitation, oodles of anesthesia and a pharmaceutical industry that doesn’t double as a distillery certainly help, too.)

Let’s face it, America: The Story of Us was an ambitious project attempting to show individual important events in the 400 years of American history.  It’s a big mess.  The writers can’t decide to go in depth or with a broad brush—if that brush happened to be a roller.  Even as a survey of our history, it falls flat.  Jamestown, then a quick 170 years later we’re in New York defending a British invasion, then we’re on the frontier with wagon trains, then the rails, then the skyscrapers: this was a dog that bit off more than it could chew. 

Why the celebrities, for Chrissakes?  We loved those tweedy, slightly awkward professors and historians in previous shows because not only did they provide more context, but in an interesting, fun way.  Who doesn’t love Kenneth Jackson’s Tennessee drawl on the Erie Canal, or Thomas Fleming’s Jersey wharf accent as he describes the “beautiful box” that is the siege of Yorktown.

Yet above all, America fails because it attempts to get to a younger students’ level with time, visual effects and violence.  Through use of “wicked cool” kill shots, America takes the long, often tedious process of 18th-19th Century warfare and accelerates fast enough so that you can collect enough lives to reach the next level before Mom sends you to bed.  You may think this helps kids get a better understanding of history.

In fact, it gives them the wrong impression that historical events were lightning quick, slickly edited and awesome.  There was little awesome in real history: just lots of everyday life broken up by moments of terror.

I know there’s a trend to making every subject “kid friendly” by making interactive games that move in 15-minute intervals to match the little shit’s TV-addled brain, but I’m holding the line in history.  A student has to understand what time meant to early people, and thus realize how they responded to everyday life.  That’s why we have so many brats that ask if George Washington is still alive (yes, I still get that question.)

Besides, if students are to become good historians (or good college students, for that matter), they have to interact with primary documents on their terms.  That means put down the controller, boys and girls, and actually SIT for a period of time and READ something. 

Human existence isn’t designed with a reset button and free lives.  It’s a series of one-shot chances that create a long, slow, complex narrative that must be interpreted as it is—not accelerated for quicker consumption.

History is digested slowly.  Let Mario and Luigi handle the easier stuff.

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