Partly inspired by a decade-old U.K. effort, “America: The Story of Us” is an odd construct. On the one hand, there’s a 12-hour history of the United States, which relies heavily on dramatic recreations and, despite Liev Schreiber’s authoritative narration, seldom rises above middle-school sophistication. Then there are the drizzled celebrity comments, which play like an entirely separate program, one where various luminaries discuss what’s unique about the American character. Unfortunately, the grafting process proves awkward, often making the celebs appear kind of dense, and History (the channel, not the study) look like it’s pandering, which of course, it is.
Anything that purports to cover 400 years of American history, even over six two-hour installments, is going to have to make tough choices. The first hour, for example, winds past Jamestown, Pocahontas and Plymouth, then races up to the start of the Revolutionary War. Fair enough.
It’s the comments, however, which prove more of a distraction than an asset, and sometimes sound out of context. Donald Trump and Michael Douglas weigh in. So does Rudolph Giuliani, who follows a dramatic depiction of the massacre that prompted the Thanksgiving holiday by talking about how America is “a place to do business, a place to expand your horizons.” And participate in tribal feuds by helping slay indigenous peoples, apparently.
There’s scant rhyme or reason to the participants (Martha Stewart, Tom Brokaw, Sean Combs, Aaron Sorkin, Sheryl Crow, etc.), who aren’t confined to their area of expertise. It’s more like the bites were inserted, rather willy-nilly, where they might do some good. Some historians are thrown in, too, providing actual information and, you know, history.
The production is filled with equally arbitrary visual flourishes, designed to up the artistic quotient and visceral appeal, but mostly as a testament to gratuitous CGI. When the “shot heard ’round the world” is fired, for instance, the musket ball slows down in close-up like a bullet in “The Matrix,” then whizzes into its target. As a colonizing ship sails toward the new world, a CGI fish swims by.
Only two of the 12 chapters were previewed, so let’s hope they saved the best for last — detailing the Depression (titled “Bust”), “WWII,” “Boomers” and “Millennium.” As is, though, mark this as another misfire from the more youth-obsessed History channel, which stays in the neighborhood of its brand without strictly adhering to it.
The result is a project that primarily feels like one of those things teachers once showed kids to get them to simmer down after recess — a poor man’s, condensed version of Ken Burns’ filmography, meant to stir patriotic fervor but without much real meat to it. Besides, Mel Brooks covered the entire world in a sixth the time, and that one even had some laughs.