Entry 28 (Part 3): A Ball, a Lynching, and a Prostitute

Mercy Street, “The Belle Alliance” & “The Dead Room,” Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, Jason Richman, and Rob Hanning.

Release Dates: February 7 & 14, 2016.

We’re in the home stretch with Mercy Street and I think it’s safe to say the show won’t live up to the potential I envisioned before its premiere or the high bar set by “The Uniform.” I can say this because the last episode will finally deliver the fake Abraham Lincoln assassination plot (horribly foreshadowed at the end of “The Dead Room”) that historians have been dreading. The show still has its moments and there’s a very good Civil War drama lurking just under the surface, but something’s keeping this show from clicking with me and—if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are to be believed—lots of other historians. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 2): Settling Into Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The Haversack” & “The Uniform,” Season 1, Episodes 2 & 3. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Dates: January 24 & 31, 2016.

So, we’re halfway through Mercy Street and I’m still not sure how I feel about the show. This is partially because I think it’s trying to do too many things, and this inevitably makes it a little uneven. The history remains impressively solid and the lead performances are getting stronger (particularly Winstead and Radnor), but the production is still struggling to find the right tone. This is especially evident in the second episode, “The Haversack,” which veers wildly from almost whimsical comedy to harsh realism. “The Uniform” is much better on all counts and ranks as the best episode so far. Hopefully, this is a sign that Mercy Street has found its groove and realized the potential that peeked through in its first two offerings. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 1): Getting to Know Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The New Nurse,” Season 1, Episode 1. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Date: January 17, 2016.

We’re finally getting fully introduced to Mercy Street this week and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Unlike some other reviewers, I haven’t seen all 6 episodes, so my thoughts here are only based on the premiere, “The New Nurse.” There are certainly some promising aspects but the episode didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. The good news is the history’s pretty solid, which isn’t surprising given the list of historical consultants. The bad news is it played a little flat.  Read More

Dreaming of Mercy Street

MercyStreetPosterwSawbone

2016’s slate of original high-profile Civil War entertainment keeps coming fast and furious, with PBS’s Mercy Street starting Sunday. About this time last year, I shared my plan to review Point of Honor on an episode-by-episode basis if Amazon picked it up. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (although, in all honesty, writing more reviews would have been fun given how terrible it was), but Mercy Street is a different animal. PBS is running the series in 6 parts over 6 weeks. I think reviewing each episode separately is a little much for all of us (I might rip off the AV Club a lot here, but I don’t have to copy everything they do), so the plan is to review the first episode, then do the next four in pairs, with a wrap-up for the finale. I had high hopes for the series months ago, but the recent promo press and Twitter comments have made me even more optimistic, so I think it’s worth almost entirely turning the blog over to it until March. As always, I’m very curious to hear your opinions, so feel free to sound off in the comments.

PS – Speaking of 2016’s Civil War entertainment, we got our first trailer for The Free State of Jones last week. I’m sure most of you have already seen it but, as with Mercy Street, my expectations for this movie just keep getting higher.

Ken Burns Made Me A Civil War Historian

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first airing of Ken Burns’s The Civil War. My original plan was to mark the occasion with a review (or series of reviews) because I have lots of opinions on it (for instance, I both agree and disagree with Kevin Levin’s recent article). Unfortunately, I don’t have time to watch it again and it’s been too long since my last viewing for me to write a proper entry. I’ll get to that someday, but today I want to say a little about my personal relationship with the film. For me, The Civil War isn’t just any documentary–it directly inspired me to pursue American history as a career. Read More

Entry 17: The Battle of Hazzard County

The Dukes of Hazzard, “Treasure of Hazzard,” Season 2, Episode 16. Directed by Hollingsworth Morse. Written by Gy Waldron, William Raynor, and Myles Wilder.

Release Date: January 25, 1980.

Available here

In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, I (like everyone else) wrote a piece about the Confederate Battle Flag. In part, I argued there was a brief period in the mid-to-late 20th century when popular culture appropriated the flag as merely a symbol of rebellion and the South, ostensibly devoid of any white supremacist connotations. I highlighted The Dukes of Hazzard as one of the primary examples of this phenomenon. The show subsequently became a focal point of this ongoing debate when TV Land pulled it due to the prominent placement of the flag on the roof of the Duke brothers’ famous car, “The General Lee.” The show indirectly also made news when Ben Jones–who played Cooter and, until recently, served as the “Chief of Heritage Operations” for the Sons of Confederate Veterans–made himself one of the flag’s most vocal defenders. In the wake of these developments, I decided to watch an episode for the first time in 30 years to measure how much Civil War memory really influenced the show. The second season episode, “Treasure of Hazzard” seemed like a good place to start, since it’s apparently the only episode that directly uses the war as a plot point. Read More

On the Confederate Battle Flag

Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee - PS2 Artwork

In the wake of last week’s horrifying tragedy in Charleston, SC, there has been a long overdue widespread discussion about public displays of the Confederate Battle Flag. I’m reluctant to add to the conversation because it’s becoming cacophonous and I’m generally in line with those who believe that the flag, like the Confederacy it represents, is inseparable from its white supremacist origins (there have been an absolute flood of articles and think-pieces about the flag since the shooting, some of which are excellent, but I’ll just recommend Jon Coski’s wonderful book on the flag). Since then, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has called for the removal of the flag in Columbia and, last night, Mississippi House speaker Philip Gunn requested a redesign of the state flag to eliminate the Confederate emblem. What truly shocked me, though, was Walmart and Ebay stating they will no longer carry any products that display the flag. With this development, the issue moved into the realm of popular culture and I thought I’d chime in on that score. Read More

Are Things Looking Up for the Civil War on TV?

Mercy Street PBS Cast

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street.

Two months ago, I rejoiced that Amazon users did not greenlight Point of Honor. On the other hand, I wondered if the reason had less to do with the show’s crappiness and more to do with a general lack of interest in the Civil War from TV audiences. Surveying the scene now, it looks like producers don’t share my concerns. No less than three major networks are developing projects dealing with some aspect of the Civil War era. I have some reservations but the fact this is happening at all–and on the heels of the sesquicentennial, when one would expect Civil War fatigue–seems like a win. Read More

Entry 12: E.T. Wins the Civil War

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Ancient Aliens, “Aliens and the Civil War,” Season 7, Episode 9. Directed by Susan E. Leventhal. Written by Rhys Thomas and Max Thompson.

Release Date: April 10, 2015.

Remember when I praised the History [Channel] for including some current scholarship in its most recent Civil War documentary? Well, screw that, because the network aired this historical abomination between the two episodes of Blood and Glory, and I fear crap sandwiches like this are what the current History [Channel] is really about.

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Entry 11: Colorizing the Civil War

Blood and Glory. Directed by Kevin Burns. Written by Kevin Burns, Eric Murphy, Rhys Thomas, and Max Thompson.

Release Date: April 7 & 14, 2015.

I had mixed feelings about this documentary before I’d seen a minute of it. My expectations for a History [Channel] show are pretty low these days, but several names I respect were involved (among them, George Rable, Peter Carmichael, Allen Guelzo, James Oakes, Mark M. Smith). Those names, however, were counter-balanced by others who’s presence was less justifiable (Ben Stein, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill O’Reilly). And then there are those colorized photos that serve as its foundation. I wasn’t a fan from the moment they first appeared. Like their colorized classic film counterparts, the colors are too pastel and there’s something unnatural about them. Then again, any documentary that makes heavy use of Civil War photography can’t be all bad. Now that I’ve seen it, I remain divided. There were things about Blood and Glory I liked and things that really bothered me. I didn’t learn anything new, but it avoided getting too bogged down in the “Football Analyst School” or the more regrettable habits of the History [Channel], and thus emerged as a fairly solid (if somewhat ephemeral) Civil War documentary. Read More