The latest addition to the end-of-the-millennium, multipart retro-specs popping up all over the dial certainly lives up to its promise to “celebrate the century,” serving up a fast-paced mix of feel-good factoids and vignettes that underscore why the 20th century was long ago dubbed the American century.
Judging by the first hour of this 10-parter, David L. Wolper’s latest docu series isn’t going to offer much in the way of provocative or intriguing assessments of the past 100 years that hasn’t already been proffered in similar programs.
First installment unfolds as a more or less chronological checklist of big events and milestones between 1900 and 1914: the death of Britain’s Queen Victoria, the Wright brothers’ flight, the Euro immigration explosion, the 1903 bow of “The Great Train Robbery,” etc.
There’s an effort to connect the headlines with big-picture cultural changes like the rise of women’s rights in the U.S. and the global spread of democratic ideals. But overall, the presentation comes off as somewhat haphazard, making for some jerky transitions, such as careening from a snapshot look at the fight for women’s suffrage to the tensions in Europe that led to World War I.
Narrator Christopher Plummer comes off as wooden and unfamiliar with the script in his on-camera bits. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis also seems out of place as he gazes into the camera while intro’ing each segment with a figure from a period tune; running his soulful solos over a title card would’ve sufficed.
Also, many of the film clips used have not been speed-corrected, making it hard to grasp the richness of these glimpses into the past without a pause button handy. One of the best clips is cockpit-cam footage of the Wright brothers giving a flight demonstration in Paris for aviation enthusiasts.
Amid the historical hodgepodge, seg does offer longer profiles of three “geniuses” who personified the individualistic and innovative spirit of the young century: Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. But these are still Facts-on-File-esque bios that don’t shed much light on just how these thinkers were different from earlier generations.
All in all, those familiar with Wolper’s previous work — on everything from Hollywood’s golden age to Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s undersea adventures — would expect something more distinctive in the opening salvo of a 10-part series. Plentiful commercial breaks may make it hard for viewers to stick with the full hour, let alone the series.