Shame Day: The History Channel

shamehistoryWhen I was growing up in Syria, we had two channels. One was the state-run propaganda channel, the other was the same channel, but with slightly less static. When my family did make an infrequent trip out of the country, the first thing on my agenda (after ratcheting up the AC to somewhere between “high” and “arctic gale”) was to plop down at the end of the bed and flip on the TV to see if they had Discovery or National Geographic or- best of all- The History Channel.

Of course, this was back before.

[Editor’s Note: Since 2009 The History Channel has gone by the one-word name “History.” Gordon will continue to refer to it by its original name for old times’ sake]

Now when I covered webcomic Sinfest for a Shame Day, I directly addressed the comic’s creator, Tatsuya Ishida, in the off-chance that he might stumble across what I had written. While I don’t think (1) anyone from the History channel is going to come across this post or (2) give a flying **** about it if they did, talking straight to the source came pretty naturally, so I’m going to be employing the same technique again.

So here it goes:

I. It’s Not That You’re Showing Pseudo-History…

History Channel, what the **** is going on with you? I shouldn’t have to tell you off like some aging hippie, but seriously- you guys used to be cool. You sold out, man.

Once upon a time- so long ago now that you guys could probably run a show on it- you had programs about the Dark Ages, Genghis Khan, the exploration of the Amazon, John Muir- you name it. I could veg out for a whole afternoon and walk away feeling that I had actually accomplished something with my time, rather than wasting it. These shows were as entertaining as they were educational. The most complicated of conflicts (War of the Roses, I’m looking at you) were broken down by you guys so that everyone could understand them. The driest political discourse you made exciting with your flawless use of dramatizations and soundtracks. Everyone who loved history in high school or college had a chance to relive it. Everyone who hated history in high school or college had a chance to catch up on everything they had missed.

It was just. So. Good.

And yeah, late at night, you’d have something a bit crazy. You’d take an hour or two to examine a conspiracy theory or a legend. And those weren’t just fine- they were fun. The dark side of the founding fathers. The mystery of the Mayans. Yes, even the-

-were fun to begin with.

But you just had to take it too far, didn’t ya? Like so many 5-year-olds, you assumed that since ice cream tastes good when served for dessert, serving nothing but ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner would just be just as delicious.

Now it’s not like that happened overnight, it’s true. Honestly, we the viewers probably should’ve noticed when the science started slipping in favor of sensationalism.

Now again, if you want to talk about Nostradamus, that’s fine. He was a historical figure, he merits discussion. If you want to talk about his prophecies in a spooky, campfire story way, that’s fine too. But if you start airing show after show with nothing but pure speculation and cryptic voice-overs- that’s not just uneducational, that’s actively detrimental to human knowledge. Shows like Countdown to Apocalypse, Seven Signs of the Apocalypse, After Armageddon,  Life After People are, at best, speculative and at worst (and it’s mostly at worst) based entirely on bad logic and reasoning. The best example for what they’re doing is probably encapsulated best in a segment from The Simpsons (back when that show was good)- check out the exchange below.

Lisa: “By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.”

Homer: “Hmm; how does it work?”

Lisa: “It doesn’t work; it’s just a stupid rock!”

Homer: “Uh-huh.”

Lisa: “… but I don’t see any tigers around, do you?”

Homer: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock…”

Again, it’s one thing to be devoid of educational content, but to actually work against learning is just unacceptable. Of course, we don’t have to worry about that so much anymore…

II. …It’s That You’re Not Even Doing That Anymore.

Even if The History Channel devolved into nothing but a cloning factory for speculation about the paranormal/apocalyptic, it’s not even that anymore. Flip on The History Channel (go do it now- I dare ya) and I’d put money down that what you’d see wouldn’t be some nutcase with an online degree in cryptology but a re-run of Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, Pawn Stars, or another such show devoid of anything even remotely resembling history. History Channel, let me be clear- if I wanted to see people with imminent heart failure screaming at each other for 45 minutes, I’d sit on my balcony. If you’re making good money showing the exploits of the same group of irritable, overweight people season after season- good for you. Just don’t call yourself The “History” Channel. That “History” logo you slap on each and every piece of tired dreck you shovel out is forfeit. I don’t care if you let someone more deserving have it (and at this point, Spike TV has a better claim to it than you do) or if you just get rid of it but don’t- just don’t keep trying to pass this junk off as being even remotely edifying.

The History Channel: Because Bruce and Mike needed that time slot more than Joan of Arc anyways…

III. Ok, Fine- Let’s Talk About Vikings

In the name of fairness- The History Channel isn’t entirely without hope. In March of this year, a short series titled Vikings was shown, following the story of Ragnar Lodbrok and his men.

If you want a general picture of what this show is like, just imagine all the dramatization segments of a normal History Channel program stitched together into a full narrative. In all honesty, as a concept, it’s really pretty cool, but History Channel, we need to talk about its execution here.

I am serious- kudos to you for trying to get your **** together, but even with the generally positive reception this show got, don’t for a minute think that you can rest on your laurels- the show has problems.

Let’s talk about characterization here. You are/were an educational channel, I’m not gonna fault you for struggling with giving the characters depth and personality, but it is something we’re going to have to work on. Your main character hacks down unarmed monks just for the kicks of it- you’re going to have to give us more to make us sympathize with him than just the fact that he’s on screen most of the time. Same goes for the “villain” of the story, who really doesn’t seem to be much worse than the main character.

Of course, the flip side of the issue is education. I know it’s tough, but you can’t have the characters just stop what they’re doing to explain how the early compass was invented or the ins and outs of Norse politics. It interrupts the story and makes the actually exposition awkward and stilted. I know it’s gotta be rough, but you’re going to need to find a more subtle way of weaving the facts in with the fiction.

IV. Seriously Though, Get It Together (Here’s How)

A criticism that’s lobbed against me is that I’m not offering a ton of solutions when I rail on my Shame Day victims. I might respond by saying that I’m not the one with the problem, so it’s not my job, but let’s go ahead and try to see what we can do fix The History Channel up a bit.

A. Give Ice Road Truckers/Ax Men/Pawn Stars/Swamp People/Whatever Else their own channel.

Seriously.

They’re making the channel money, and if we can siphon off the excess funds to devote to programming that built The History Channel’s reputation in the first place, who cares what it has going on on the side? I want a channel wholly undiluted by anything not directly and concretely related to history. And that said…

B. Banish the Alien/Conspiracy/Apocalypse Shows To Their Own Time Slots

Again, I’ve never had an issue with these kinds of shows- I actually kinda enjoy ’em. My problem is that they’re invading airtime that should be devoted to real history- putting Ancient Aliens next to The Dark Ages elevates the former and degrades the latter to a level neither deserve. Keep the crazy programs walled off in their own, distinct category so that you can still enjoy them without ever mistaking them for anything other than just sheer entertainment.

C. Get Yourselves Some Period Drama Writers

Again, I think the direction you’re going with Vikings is actually pretty innovative- but again, you’re clearly struggling with how to tell a good story and maintain a degree of educational value. Try bringing in some people who’ve got a better grasp on this- writers who’ve worked on such shows as Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Hell on Wheels, or other generally respectable period shows. You’re going to have to depart from your usual technique of having an expert explicitly break down the situation for the audience, but I think it’s worth a shot- and it ties in to the most important repair of all:

D. Respect the Audience Again

While you guys were great at making history accessible to everyone, you never used to talk down to the audience. People like to be challenged- learning something new, or grappling with a fresh concept, was all part of the charm you guys had in the beginning. It kept us engaged and active and ready to learn. Stop demanding effort from us and we stop expecting effort from you guys- almost makes me wonder if that wasn’t the root of this whole mess. Like I said above, we probably should’ve caught you slipping.

So there you have it, History Channel, your many, many failings, and, if you’ll have them, some modest proposals for improvement. I really and truly do want to see you restored to your former glory, as I imagine most of our readers will as well. If they’ve got any further ideas for getting us back on the right track, they should just go ahead and start firing away in the comments section below. Until then, History Channel, I can only leave you with this one last, stinging observation:

The only difference between you guys and the X-Files is that in the X-Files the conspiracy theorists get called out on their crap.

Get it together, guys.

_______________________________________________________

Other ideas for solutions:

I. Picking Up Deadliest Warrior.

II. A show all about dispelling historical misconceptions (such as Napoleon’s height).

III. One day of each week being devoted to the historical development of each of the different continents.

IV. A show examining historical predictions about life in the 21st century- what they got right and what they got wrong.

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3 responses to “Shame Day: The History Channel

  1. Gordon, I hope you decide to start a series on the depiction of history in pop culture, based on this shame day and your Hitler post. You could explore different characters or events that crop up often in fiction or “based on a true story” films/books. You could explore “whitewashing” history in films like “21” and “Argo”. You could explore the relationship between dramatic narrative, the need for character arcs, and preserving historical accuracy.

  2. X-Files enthusiast chiming in: *Annoying comment alert* In the show, the conspiracy theorist but in the end, wasn’t Mulder usually right? “I want to believe” and all? *Annoying comment over*

    Really enjoy your blog, and found myself nodding sadly throughout this whole post. Frankly, the current state of the History Channel makes me want to join a terrorist organization.

    • Mulder was usually right, but Scully always called him out when he tried using bad logic or speculative reasoning to make his case.

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