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Why Can’t US History Work On Television?

by  in Comic News, TV News Comment

It’s July 4th tomorrow, an important day – the most important? – for America, but one that’s been curiously untouched for the most part by movies or television. It’s not as if historical fiction/retellings are an unpopular genre in other media, so why don’t we see that much of it onscreen?

On the rare occasions when American history gets its day in the onscreen spotlight, it’s very likely that we’ll get something either overly earnest (Hi, HBO’s John Adams!) or worse still, overly airbrushed and generic (Hi, almost everything else!). There’s a strange tendency to not only rewrite history when bringing it to the screen, but to do so in such a way that makes it far, far less interesting than the reality of the whole thing. It’s understandable, I guess – there’s a remarkable amount of self-mythologizing in every nation’s history, with the reality of America’s past being particularly unpalatable for many (Or, in the case of some high profile political figures, particularly garbled) – but ultimately creates a loop of logic: By making historical programming more and more bland in order to appeal to as many people as possible because, historically, historical programming doesn’t appeal to that many people, the historical programming will be too bland to appeal to that many people. Thing is, there are two very obvious models as to how to approach authentic, yet entertaining, historical television shows, at least: The Daily Show, and the career of Sarah Vowell.

I’ll start with the more familiar of the two: What The Daily Show does very well is manage to turn truth into entertainment without sacrificing the harsh realities involved. Say what you will about the show’s (or, more appropriately, host Jon Stewart’s) increasing tendency to soapbox at the drop of a hat, but the show doesn’t back away from the parts of the news that aren’t immediately comedic, or avoid the difficult targets – It just works harder to find the humor in them, even when said humor is righteous anger dressed up with some puns and cultural references. Similarly, Vowell’s historical non-fiction (Assasination Vacation, The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes, each one highly recommended) takes a “just-the-facts” approach and tries to find the humor inside, feeling perfectly comfortable when there is none, knowing that there’s enough elsewhere – even when it’s to be found at her own expense – to round everything out.

(You may be familiar with Vowell’s name, but also have never heard of her – She was the voice of Violet in The Incredibles, and has done a lot of work for NPR, if that helps.)

That Vowell can make history both educational and entertaining in equal amounts without sacrificing either intent, and that The Daily Show can do the same thing (albeit for current day news, which has a little more relevance for and a little less reluctance from mainstream audiences) on television makes me convinced that someone can do the same thing for American history. Consider this a challenge, program makers: The History Channel needs another show worth watching; Brad Meltzer can’t do it all himself.