Tag Archives: television

Mercy Street – A Promising Beginning

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.47.27 PMSo I have watched the premiere episode of the PBS Civil War drama, Mercy Street, which is  the story of two volunteer nurses and a hospital staff in 1862 Alexandria. I will refrain from any attempt at a  comprehensive review until I have watched the series in its entirety – but for now I am optimistic.

I was pleased to learn that the writers thought to infuse actual issues into the narrative. The show deftly engages gender, abolition as both a political and moral cause, and nationalism (on both sides). With luck, the show will continue on this path and give the audience something to ponder other than what could very easily wind up as an over-wrought Lifetime historical romance  – much like what has become of Downton Abbey of late.

Of course, optimism notwithstanding – there were a few things that, well…just didn’t sit right. For starters, the characters seem a little cut-and-paste: one for every category, as it were. There is the fiery abolitionist, the obstinate belle, the Unionist who doesn’t care about slavery,  the free black man who is too smart for his own good, the list goes on. And I won’t spoil it for you – but there were a few scenes that were so melodramatic and/or cliche that I had to smirk.

But I won’t come down too hard on the first episode. I will give the show time for some character development, some added complexity, and the ironing out of a few wrinkles. All in all – The first Mercy Street episode caught me attention – in a positive way. And so I look forward to next week.

With compliments,

Keith

Ken Burns’s The Civil War Twenty-Five Years Later

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 11.48.40 AMAll is a-buzz on the Interwebs this week as PBS re-airs Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Many people are discussing what this program meant to them the first time around – how it inspired them individually and how Burns’s riveting narrative reached people in unprecedented ways. I do not think I need to go out on a limb here by saying that Burns sparked the interest of millions and helped make the past seem…well…interesting to those who might have slept through their high school history classes. Let me just go on record by saying that this is among the most important things ever to be on television.

For those of you re-watching this week or perhaps checking it out for the first time, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder…

Shelby Foote is at once the program’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. Foote, the master novelist, brings more charm to this show than one might believe possible. His soothing drawl and folksy wisdom only add to his unsurpassed storytelling expertise. You really want to like this man…and believe him. But his analysis is often questionable. For example, he notes:

1. The Confederacy never had a chance to win the war (yes, it did).

2. The Union fought the war with one hand tied behind its back (no, it didn’t).

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest was – with Lincoln – one of the war’s two original geniuses (no, he wasn’t).

Apart from these quibbles with Foote I found the final episode overwhelmingly reconciliationist in its sensibilities. While this analytical bent is right in step with the scholarship of the 1990s, it is pretty clear now (as it really was then if you thought about it long enough and actually looked at the historical record…) that veterans of that war were not so keen on letting bygones be bygones and reaching Across the Bloody Chasm in friendship (see what I did there?). I will be happy to elaborate on any nits that I picked in the comments below (note: I have been ripped a new one for critiquing Shelby Foote before, so have at it).

So do I think that you should take a pass on The Civil War? Of course not – and here’s why. The documentary still – 25 years later – inspires conversation and debate, which is what a great documentary is supposed to do. And now an entirely new generation can get acquainted with their past. Watch it with them…and get them talking. Furthermore, a TON of Civil War scholarship has hit the shelves since the show’s first airing. It would certainly be interesting to see how the history in The Civil War stands the test of time. And one more thing…congratulations to Ken Burns for 25 years of keeping Civil War history on people’s minds.

With compliments,

Keith

Wanted: Movie Reviewers

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 7.03.42 AMGreetings all!

I have been toying with the idea of adding a movie/television review section to each issue of The Americanist Independent. There have been a couple of reviews in the past, but I want to make it a regular feature in each issue. Of course I’ll need people to contribute short reviews on recent films or television shows that cover topics of  significance to United States history.

You can submit your reviews HERE.

Naturally, I am open to all suggestions.

For starters, I am considering these:

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With compliments,

Keith

Eyewitness to the Lincoln Assassination: Brought to You by Winston

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 10.20.01 AMToday (while recovering from yesterday’s LA Marathon) I have been rewatching this fascinating television appearance by the last living person to witness the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. His name is Samuel Seymour, and he was 96 years old when this show, I’ve Got a Secret, aired in 1956.
This is an interesting look at Civil War era memory in action. Seymour was only five years old at the time of the shooting, and he only recalls a man (John Wilkes Booth) falling from the balcony on to the stage. As he says…”It scared him to death.” Only later did he learn of the significance of the event.

This mid-1950s television show somewhat trivializes Lincoln’s assassination, and really really makes me want to smoke a Winston cigarette, but I have to say I was captivated by the elderly man – a witness to a momentous event in American history. Illustrating that even in the television age (which I am pretty sure is on it’s way out now) we are not so far removed from the war.

I am going to add this vintage Civil War related footage to my list of favorites right up there with the famous clip of Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands at the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge in 1938.

Here is the Seymour clip in full:

With compliments,
Keith