Over the past few years, History has made a concerted attempt to package its subject matter — history — in ways that might appeal to a new audience. As in Young People with their Digital Addictions and Limited Attention Spans.
Some of these efforts involved violent gritty realism combined with great storytelling ("Hatfields & McCoys," "Vikings") while others relied on fancy computer graphics, salacious tidbits (cannibalism at Jamestown!) and other Comic-Con-friendly devices designed, presumably, to give high school students a reason to watch (and high school teachers a well-deserved break.)
"The World Wars," which fittingly premieres on Memorial Day, uses a bit of this, a bit of that, but mostly it puts its money on the Great Man theory of history. Following the careers of a half-dozen key players, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, as they emerged from the trenches of one war to lead the forces of another, the six-hour, three-part series argues, if not specifically then by presumption, that "The World Wars" were, in fact, one prolonged conflict between a relatively few battle-hardened, brilliant and/or power-mad men.
It's a compelling idea, and there is much to like and learn from the miniseries. Alas, executive producer Stephen David and his creative team seem intent on getting in their own way, cluttering up the inevitably fascinating narrative (offered here by Jeremy Renner) with all manner of clunky historical reenactments, hyperbolic characterizations and a soundtrack that should be shot for treason. (Seriously, I am hoping that the relentless pulse of generic strings and percussion was simply over-sold on the screeners History made available because it made the series literally painful to watch.)
For reasons both logistical and narrative, the First World War itself is given short shrift — the archduke was assassinated, everyone overreacted, and there we all were, dug into the mud of France. Instead, the first night's narrative focuses on the experiences of Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt as well Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton as they survive and in some cases thrive.
It is undeniably interesting and illuminating to compare the experiences of the men who would soon engage in such a deadly relationship, but far too much time is devoted to scenes of young Churchill swilling Scotch after the disastrous Battle of Gallipoli or young Hitler staring penetratingly at the camera in a way meant to imply nascent madness. Indeed, far more time is spent discussing the end of the war, i.e. the Treaty of Versailles, than its causes.
By the second episode "The World Wars" is on more solid footing, increasingly dotted with actual footage and knit together with observations from historians and world leaders. These include Colin Powell, Leon Panetta and former British Prime Minister John Major, and it is fine Memorial Day viewing. It's a reminder that history can turn on small moments as well as large.
Many other documentarians, including Ken Burns, have taken on the subject matter in a more extensive, detailed and, OK, better way. And there is definitely a regrettable "... For Dummies" implied by the emphasis on personality over complexity.
But the story of these wars and these men, however imperfectly told, remains compelling, disturbing and important. Enough so that it bears repeating in a variety of forms. Including this one.
'The World Wars'
When: 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)