Sunday, November 22, 2009

22 November 1963: The Kennedy Assassination

I actually have nothing, new or other, to say about the Kennedy assassination. However, I did want to take opportunity to say something good about History channel for a change. Although I have often been critical of it (in part a matter of disappointed expectations: it could be so much better, along the lines of its European counterparts), I have to say that it has some winners.

Earlier this fall, there was the story of the Kennedy assassination, "JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America," told simply in raw news footage from the time of the murder itself. (I missed Saturday night's program on the first 24 hours after the event and thus cannot offer a judgment on it.) This past week, History also aired the multipart "World War II in HD," the story of the experiences of twelve ordinary Americans in the War, told through diaries and letters, color film footage, and modern interviews. Both made such compelling—even transfixing—viewing because they seemed to offer direct access to human drama.

There's a lesson here: As I've noted before, the worst History channel programs are those in which the content is simply inane and the object is to pander, or there is too clearly a strained attempt to make more serious and legitimate material "interesting" through the use of reenactments and other gimmicks, which are rarely executed well or tastefully. (This latter trend, even in cases that don't lend themselves to costume drama, is both understandable and controversial: [1] [2] [3] [4]; and that's not even taking into account outright fakery and fauxtography). By contrast, the channel does best when it sticks closest to the traditional documentary format. That's not to say that alternatives are not possible, just that the ones they have tried don't work.

Relax, guys. When you're good, you're good. But remember: sometimes, less really is more.

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