For the most part, I don’t spend much time on either the Smithsonian or National Geographic Channels, both of which approximate niches already occupied by larger, better-known basic cable competitors.
Still, this seemed like as good a time as any to drop in on offerings from each of them — one sober, the other silly.
Smithsonian has made “MLK: The Assassination Tapes,” premiering Feb. 12, a centerpiece of its programming for Black History Month, and the hour-long special is a firstrate effort. Using local and national news footage — some of which hasn’t been seen since Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968 — writer/producer/director Tom Jennings and producer/co-editorRon Frank have put together a taut tick-tock of King’s final days, his murder, its immediate aftermath, and the subsequent manhunt for the guy convicted of shooting him, James Earl Ray.
Frankly, it’s the sort of spare yet compelling historical documentary TV could use more of, especially with History increasingly bowing out of the history business. (If Smithsonian followed History’s model, they’d change the channel’s name to Smith and start focusing on ice fishing, or trucking, or whatever.)
On the flip side, NatGeo goes for a lighter approach with “Party Like” — a series that, with apologies to Marie Antoinette, tries to have its cake and eat it too. In this case, the show revels in the debauchery of the past by examining the lavish parties of the day, from partying like the Queen of France or a Roman emperor to, in the episode I watched, “The Rich and Famous” of the Gilded Age, and an astonishingly expensive 1890s bash at the Waldorf in New York.
Recreated using actors, the show seeks to provide insight via modern commentators — including historians and, oddly, a present-day party planner. It’s all goofy and harmless enough, but also hard to see the point. Moreover, the emphasis on freewheeling spending amid the current economy risks sounding a bit tone deaf, in a show that lurches closer to Bravo territory than most NatGeo fare.
Then again, NatGeo is clearly seeking to be a little more fun and provocative, as evidenced by another series premiering later this month, “American Weed,” about “cannabis entrepreneurs, medicinal users and anti-dispensary crusaders” in Colorado. This should not be mistaken for Discovery’s “Weed Wars,” though — like a lot in the highly derivative world of reality TV — easily could be, especially if you’re stoned.
Think of it as TV for those who use “party” as a verb and know where to find a green cross in their neighborhoods. So party on, dudes — and while you’re at it, pass the chips.