US history given some dramatic re-creation on "History"

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The creative forces behind “America: The Story of Us’’ have trumpeted their intention to offer every school in the nation a free DVD of this six-night, 12-hour series, and that emphasis on attracting young viewers is abundantly clear from the first episode.

This is American history served up docudrama style, with narrative velocity and visual pizzazz. What’s gained by this approach is a certain storytelling oomph. What’s lost is a certain gravitas. I suspect it’s a tradeoff that History, eager to shake off the fusty reputation it had when it was known as the History Channel, is willing to make.

The subtitle of the series, “The Story of Us,’’ sends a salutary message at a time when political polarization has raised the question of whether there is an “us’’ anymore. History will air two episodes each Sunday night starting at 9, beginning this weekend (the final two episodes will air on Monday, May 31)....

...[P]roblematic are the talking heads who periodically favor us with their wisdom in the first episode. They primarily consist not of the usual tweedy historians but rather an eclectic — and sometimes dubious — array of celebrities.

At one point, the film shifts from a scene of early Jamestown settler (and husband of Pocahontas) John Rolfe bending over his tobacco crop to that renowned scholar Donald Trump bloviating about what it takes to be successful. I’m not kidding. I wish I were....

To be fair, the commentators who deserve to be here — Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, Henry Louis Gates Jr. — do offer useful perspective. Powell, for instance, notes the centrality of military service to the African-American experience, observing: “African-Americans fought for the country even before it was a country.’’ The series offers a grim reminder, though, that between 1700 and 1800, roughly 250,000 Africans were seized from their homeland and transported to the colonies as slaves....

Overall, this series shapes up as a worthy undertaking. I’m looking forward to seeing future episodes, and if snazzy production values help galvanize the interest of young viewers in 400 years of US history, that’s all to the good. But I’m also hoping that along the way there will be room in “America’’ for a few more tweedy historians with something to say.

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