The first new show I’m watching at the traditional start of the TV season is a miniseries documentary, “The War” on PBS. It’s Ken Burns’s take on the American generation that fought World War II.
I’m a fan of Burns’s previous work on the US Civil War and baseball and jazz and much else, but this first episode had me struggling to pay attention. I’m at the bullseye of the target audience – or, perhaps I should be, but more on that later – so I need to analyze why this didn’t enthrall me.
In theory, the documentary focuses on the residents of four representative towns and the impact the war had on them. In practice, this approach did not work. The stories were scattershot and we were – I was – left without a sense of how the first year of war affected Sacramento, say. The filmmakers’ efforts to cover the war in general further weakened their product. Most Westerners have little idea that the war in Europe was won and lost on the Eastern Front long before D-Day, and the episode took the time to provide “updates” on campaigns and events in Poland and the Soviet Union. That’s an admirable approach, but it dilutes the message. It belongs in another documentary. Every time the episode shifted from Bataan to Warsaw to Luverne, Minn. to Guadalcanal, I struggled to follow.
If I am the audience for “The War”, the show doesn’t need to break away for these global updates – but maybe I’m not the intended audience. Maybe “The War” is meant for history-challenged youth who don’t know much about this at all. That makes the mistake, in my opinion, understandable, but doesn’t remedy it.
I also wonder if the topic itself is part of the problem. The multi-episode documentaries that Burns has made in the past have also been historical, but he reached back into the dim, 19th-century past for topics and made style-setting choices in his use of motion over photographs. While there are Civil War movies, they are and always remain movies. No man can point and say, “I was there and that’s what it was like.”
World War Two is not as forgiving on two fronts. Fiction like “Saving Private Ryan”, and “Band of Brothers”, and more are more than stories; they are invested with real experiences. Men can and do stand up and say, “That’s what it was like.” Episodes of “Band of Brothers” started and ended with the actual veterans reminiscing. Compared to the cinematic power of these masterful films/miniseries, can “The War” compete with archival footage and stills in motion? It didn’t seem like it to me.
And that comes back to the scope of this project. It needs to focus more on the individuals and their stories. It can’t takes us off on a jaunt to Stalingrad and expect us to pick right up with the internment of Japanese-Americans and then zip off to explore the wartime African-American experience in Mobile, Ala. (which it didn’t except in the vaguest of ways).
Coming this week are premieres of “Heroes”, “House”, and “The Office”. “30 Rock” starts Oct. 4. The two new shows I have pencilled in for premiere-night viewing are “Pushing Daisies” and “Cavemen”. That’s either going to be awesome or atrocious. I see no middle ground.
Oh, and “Kenny vs. Spenny” hits Showcase again Nov. 6.
Bonus budget update:
I spent over a hundred dollars on goalie-style throat protector and jock for Child Three today. We looked everywhere between downtown and the West Island for a small size chest protector but didn’t find that or any set small enough for him. We may have to go with something a bit too big, because I don’t think it’s safe for him to go with plain old shoulder pads this year.