If you have ever surfed the upper reaches of the cable channels in desperate search of semi-literate diversion, you have probably run into the numerous channels which seem to be determinedly devoted to “history lite”. You know the ones I’m talking about. They feature shows called “Ten things you didn’t know about…” or “America: the Story of US”; “How the States Got Their Shapes”, “America’s Book of Secrets” , “Unsolved Mysteries” or “Who Do You Think You Are?” This last one was an inferior copycat of a pretty good PBS Series, “Faces of America”, written and hosted by a bonafide historian. More on this later.
The sad part is that even the networks dedicated to quality (not to mention, accurate) programming have succumbed to the trend toward dumbed-down content featuring sensationalism in all it’s embarrassing forms.
Now, I enjoy interesting trivia as much as the next person, but as a historian I take offense at cheap shots. I LOVE history. I KNOW it can be boring; I became a history major IN SPITE of a succession of mind-numbing and sometimes lifeless teachers and professors. I’ve conducted a lifelong campaign to change this, to make history come alive. But honestly, why does it have to be sensational or titillating to pique interest?
Ken Burns gets it. The PBS producer has become famous and wealthy (by PBS standards) telling good stories about the Civil War, Lewis & Clark Trail, World War II, National Parks, Baseball, and a long list of America’s founding fathers. That’s all it takes to make history interesting: a good story. Really!
It helps if you have an accomplished story-teller – preferably somebody who also knows what he’s talking about – to lend veracity to the subject. But these history lite shows are invariably hosted by unemployed actors with no apparent qualifications for the job, but clearly grateful for the work.
Which brings me back to my original mention of the best show in the pack.
I had enjoyed Henry Louis Gates’ “Faces of America” so much that I was actually looking forward to its imitator on what used to be called a major network. “Faces” took us along on the individual genealogical explorations of accomplished but not necessarily famous individuals, starting with their pre-conceived notions of where their ancestors came from. Using DNA laboratory results to supplement standard research, and usually a trip to “the homeland”, each journey was fascinating and often surprising.
It’s imitator by contrast [“Who Do You Think You Are” was cancelled by the network after two seasons but lives on in the land of cable] features only A-list celebrities many of whom appear never to have read a book, let alone set foot in a library. After a particularly egregious episode in which a well-known actress chewed up the scenery with her assertions that her discoveries had “changed everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (her punctuation, not mine) not once, but repeatedly, I bailed. Pu-lease!
My guess is that the director believed that historic research wasn’t sexy enough for prime time television (despite the success of its forerunner) and instructed the featured celebrity to emote to the max at the slightest discovery in the family tree. I wished that I could just take this particular actress by the hand and say to her in a calming tone usually reserved for talking a potential jumper down from a ledge, that no, this information doesn’t change a thing. You are still the same person you were when you started this journey. You can’t change any of this history, even if you wanted to. You are now just better informed than you were previously.
As an inveterate collector of quotes, I found two that fit this situation:
“The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know” (Harry S Truman)
and – even more to the point –
“You are what you have been taught; not what’s running in your veins.”
Lest you think me a hopeless snob, I will close with a confession: I stumbled upon a fascinating history program once that I never would have discovered if it weren’t for it’s provocative title: “The Naked Archaeologist”. Alas, the host didn’t explore exotic locations in the nude as the title hinted. Aside from being used as bait for would-be voyeurs like myself, the “naked” part of the title referred to the uncovering of historic truths as he revealed ancient layers of the earth. The host actually was a learned historian, if not a literal archaeologist, and most of the shows were set in the Middle East, a part of the world that could use a little knowledge of its past to inform its present. I learned a lot, and didn’t have to endure a starlet’s histrionics about “amazing” discoveries.
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.