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Past Imperfect

The new year, evidently, is a good time to ponder our history, as the eight-part series Freedom: A History of US—among many others—proves, with varying degrees of success.

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History lesson: A young girl peers out the window of her workplace -- a cotton mill -- in Freedom: A History of US  

You’ve probably seen joy Hakim charming bookstore audiences on C-span. Not since Moses has there been such a grandmother—a former teacher and editor, a writer of newspaper editorials, and the author of a ten-volume series of American-history books for children that has sold more than 4 million copies. She got into this history-writing business because the textbooks she looked at were boring enough to injure us in our citizenship. And now public television, with the stalwart assistance of Kunhardt Productions, General Electric (the sole corporate sponsor), and Katie Couric (who talks us through all eight hours), has adapted Freedom: A History of US for the small screen.

The good news is lively narrative, interesting digressions, and amusing voice-overs, e.g., Tom Hanks as Paul Revere and Abe Lincoln; Robin Williams as Ulysses S. Grant and Orville Wright; Meryl Streep as Abigail Adams and Mother Jones; Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall; Blythe Danner as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Emma Lazarus; Kevin Spacey as Herbert Hoover and Herman Melville; and Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Reese Witherspoon as maybe twelve different people you’ve never heard of, not to mention Whoopi Goldberg as Sojourner Truth; Paul Newman as Earl Warren; Susan Sarandon as Susan B. Anthony; Martin Sheen as John Adams; Ving Rhames as W.E.B. DuBois; and John Goodman as Big Bill Haywood—the list goes on.

But you knew a “good news” paragraph would have to be followed by a “bad news” paragraph. If the Hakim books are pitched at a seventh-grade level, the TV series aims lower, like fourth. While the documents quoted presume at least literacy, maybe a high-school vocabulary, and probably an ability to contextualize, the linking narration is baby-talk and agitprop, with a tropism toward the hokey, as in “India: Land of Contrasts.” Years ago, Pauline Kael emerged from Disney’s The Ugly Dachshund feeling grumpy: “It’s easy to say that it’s not intended for adults (meaning it isn’t fit for them) but that kids will love it. But I can’t think of a single good ‘children’s’ picture that intelligent adults can’t enjoy, and I see no reason we should not respect our children at least as much as we respect ourselves.” This goes for Katie Couric, too.

Maybe baby-talk’s the obligatory speech of a secure homeland. How else to explain Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, in which our Ben (Aidan Quinn) has been driven to betray his country and his mentor (George W. the First, played by Kelsey Grammer like a bran muffin) by the shameful politicking of the Continental Congress. In fact, according to this overwrought docudrama, the real traitor was his Loyalist wife, Peggy (Flora Montgomery), who may have been having it off with the British officer John Andre (John Light). The war stuff is feisty enough, although nowhere near as thrilling as the plague of Orcs in the latest Tolkien, but it’s hard to believe that the same William Mastrosimone who wrote Bang Bang You’re Dead also wrote this red-coated bodice-buster.

Even harder to believe is that any network would rush into prime time with America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story. How many other editors of mediocre magazines have gotten their own docudrama, and a docudrama, moreover, pretending to be a documentary, with actors interviewing actors? Kristoffer Polaha is an amiable lightweight John, “the sexiest man on the planet” according to People. Jacqueline Bisset is all wrong as his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who’s seen here to disapprove equally of journalism and Daryl Hannah (nicely turned by Tara Chocol). As his wife, Carolyn, Ally McBeal’s Portia de Rossi has somehow achieved a hard simper. Eric Laneuville directs with more conviction than the material deserves.

If American history is in trouble overall, Chicago on its own is doing fine. Based on Donald L. Miller’s first-rate book, Chicago: City of the Century escorts us knowledgeably from the city’s early-nineteenth-century start as a fur-trading post in a stinking mudhole to the metropolis of roughly 300,000 it had become before the Great Fire of 1871—for which Mrs. O’Leary and her cow were unfairly blamed—to the Haymarket “riot” and the World’s Fair. As we go into the grain silos, the meatpacking plants, the lumber yards, the Pullman sleeping cars, and the Palmer House hotel rooms, we are reminded again and again that the story of Chicago is the story of a war between capital and labor. And seldom has American television gone into the trenches of that war as thoroughly as the middle and concluding installments of this series do, with Marshall Field and martial law on one side and the labor unions, the immigrants, and the anarchists on the other. And this is before the great twentieth-century migrations of blacks and the blues.

Mister Sterling (January 10; 8 to 9 p.m.; NBC) sends Josh Brolin to the U.S. Senate, where, to distinguish itself from The West (Left) Wing, his politics (pro–military tribunal, anti–death penalty) will pander to instead of preach at the target demographic. Audra McDonald, James Whitmore, William Russ, Harris Yulin, and many others add up to a good cast and a promising show.

Queens Supreme (January 10; 10 to 11 p.m.; CBS) asks us to put up again with Oliver Platt, as a judge in a Queens court where a juror who only wants a smoke will end up taking everybody hostage and an Irish hit man is actually an undercover cop. Annabella Sciorra is, as usual, lovely to look at, and Robert Loggia is a wise old man. Talky, but it’s pretty good talk.

Behind the Red Door (January 12; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; Showtime) makes the terrific likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Stockard Channing, and Kiefer Sutherland fight their way through a weepie about abusive fathers, martyred mothers, emotionally traumatized siblings, photography, advertising, and AIDS.

Freedom: A History of US
Sundays, January 12 through March 2; 7 to 8 p.m.; PBS.

Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor
Monday, January 13; 8 to 10 p.m.; A & E.

America's Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story
Sunday, January 12; 8 to 10 p.m.; TBS.

Chicago: City of the Century
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, January 13, 14, and 15; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; PBS.


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