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Comprehensive, but a little shallow
on 13 December 2010
As most documentaries about US history focus on the big names and gloss over the "mediocre presidents" as The Simpsons named them, it's good to see a more comprehensive documentary. Each president is given a slot, both Lincoln and Fillmore alike. A plethora of pundits give background commentary (sometimes at odds with each other) and visual sources fill in the gaps, including photos (where available), paintings, reenactments, and written archives. There's some good trivia included, although it's sometimes a little contrived. Unfortunately, some of the segments seem rushed and end abruptly, as if they divided up the presidents between episodes before actually writing each president's segment. Meanwhile, other presidents' segments are belaboured to fill the space allocated. I feel it would have been better to write it without constraint and then edit appropriately based on the result.
Once into living memory (and living presidents), the pundits unsurprisingly become a lot more guarded, perhaps for fear of offending the subject. This is particularly noticeable when former President Carter is himself interviewed: when the other pundits are subsequently interviewed, it's almost as if they know he's outside the door, listening!
As someone who's grown up on epic BBC documentaries, this History Channel show doesn't seem to have the gravitas and serious production quality I'd like, and whoever picked the cheesy electric guitar track for the end music needs help. Sound and picture quality are what you'd expect from a 2003 show filmed in NTSC hastily converted to PAL DVD, so this isn't going to look great on a modern post-digital UK TV.
Saying that, this show was obviously well-researched and a lot of effort went into filling the inevitable gaps in the audio/visual record. This documentary is the best primer on "the other guys" I've seen.
I haven't had the chance to watch the extra material yet, but the main documentary only covers the first three of six discs.