The History Channel’s “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower”

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Here’s a message for premium-cable auteurs. For your next gritty series, forget organized criminals, Old West horse-traders, even agents in Hollywood. Instead, consider a truly radical clique: the Puritans.

That odd little band, whose eccentric and sine-qua-non American accomplishments we celebrate next week, gets a tantalizing hearing Sunday on the History Channel’s “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower.”

The show is nominally a documentary, but it is as full-dress as a Bob Fosse production. Betraying (as usual) no nervousness about the place of re-creations in nonfiction programming, the History Channel flaunts a huge and talented, if barely credited, cast; elaborate set design; music cues; and makeup that convincingly suggests scurvy, among other New World transformations.

In fact, with all this Spielberg stuff, “Desperate Crossing” would simply look like a television movie, perhaps one “based on the writings of William Bradford,” if not for the occasional appearance of a talking head — an academic, a lay historian — offering some explanation to go with a scene.

It bears repeating that this is a far cry from the hallowed documentary way of Ken Burns, where impressionistic, metonymic re-creations (lighted candle, turning wheel) are used to illustrate points made by commentators. On “Desperate Crossing,” the commentary seasons the action, not the other way around.

The History Channel’s approach makes for rollicking watching. The early scenes set in England — the furtive meetings of the religious separatists in strange Scrooby — are deliberately underlighted but supremely suggestive. Was it really true that a group could be fined, or worse, just for coming together? No wonder “freedom of assembly” is written into the Bill of Rights and many of those early American Protestant sects have names (like Congregationalists) that reflect pride in the simple fact that they have managed to form groups.

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