Friday, July 7, 2017
July 7, 2017: Representing the Revolution: TV Shows
[For this year’s July 4th series, I’ll be AmericanStudying cultural representations of the Revolution and its era. Leading up to a special post on Hamilton!]
Paralleling yesterday’s post, three Revolutionary-focused TV shows that reflect the medium’s evolution.
1) The Swamp Fox (1959-60): I’m not gonna lie, I’m including this show partly because I wanted to share clips like that initial hyperlinked one, of a very young Leslie Nielsen as the titular hero (he even sang the show’s theme song!). But The Swamp Fox also reflects an interesting moment in TV history—produced by Disney, in a direct attempt to build on the success of its Davy Crockett miniseries (1954-1955), The Swamp Fox didn’t achieve that level of prominence but nonetheless represented (to my knowledge) the first TV show to focus on the American Revolution. It did so in part by translating many elements of the era’s hugely popular TV westerns (including Crockett, but also and especially late 1950s contemporaries like Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza, and many more) into Revolutionary-era South Carolina. Yet at the same time, The Swamp Fox was set during a war, and as such its gun-toting heroes and villains (like the British officers played by John Sutton and Patrick Macnee) played very different roles than those on the westerns. Even without dashing young Leslie, this is a show well worth watching (and all eight episodes are currently available in full on YouTube).
2) George Washington (1984): It took a quarter-century for another TV miniseries focused on a Revolutionary historical figure to air, and when it did it was with the very different George Washington (as well as its 1986 sequel, George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation). Starring Barry Bostwick as George, Patty Duke as Martha, and an all-star cast (including Hal Holbrook as John Adams and, in keeping with the Zucker Brothers comedies thread, Lloyd Bridges as Caleb Quinn), George Washington was a sweeping epic melodrama, set over more than 30 years (from the French and Indian War to the end of the Revolution) and featuring the same kinds of historicl and romantic intrigues featured in other 80s miniseries (perhaps most similarly, the following year’s Civil War epic North and South). Although historical miniseries had been a popular TV genre since at least Roots (1977), I would argue that George Washington is at least as close to its contemporary primetime soaps like Dynasty and Dallas (both of which were dominating the airwaves in 1984) as to a historical drama like Roots. This was the American Revolution via 1980s bombast and excess—which, to be very clear, isn’t at all a critique, and makes for a fun eight hours of binge-watching pleasure.
3) Turn: Washington’s Spies (2014-present): The 21st century has seen its share of historical miniseries, including the hugely successful HBO production John Adams (2008) and the more critically mixed History Channel show Sons of Liberty (2014-15). But I would argue that the recent (in fact, ongoing) show which better reflects our current TV moment is Turn, the AMC spy drama that premiered its fourth and final season just a few weeks back. Combining elements of contemporary historical spy dramas like The Americans, historical action melodramas like Vikings, historical resistance dramas like Underground, and stories of family and loyalty and crime like Sons of Anarchy, Turn reflects the breadth and depth of what longtime critics like Alan Sepinwall have taken to calling Peak TV (full disclosure: because of that quantity and quality, I’ve only seen a few moments of Turn as of this writing). Yet at the same time, the cancellation of Underground (which looked like it might get picked up by Oprah’s OWN, but unfortunately was not), which both garnered higher ratings and was more critically acclaimed than Turn, suggests that Peak TV is still influenced by complex issues of race and audience in frustrating ways. Which is to say, we might not be ready for the Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker miniseries that would be my ideal next cultural representation of the Revolution.
Special Hamilton post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary representations you’d highlight?