But then there are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.
I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called “World War II”.
Let’s start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn’t look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn’t get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.
I wouldn’t even mind the lack of originality if they weren’t so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren’t that evil. And that’s not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.
Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.
So it’s pretty standard “shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong” versus “evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide” stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: “Nuts!”. The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.
Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy – the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin’ play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.
Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there’s no way to take the Japanese home islands because they’re invincible…and then they realize they totally can’t have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.
So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they’ve never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was “classified”. In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone’s ever seen before – drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn’t it?
…and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin’ unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you’re starting to wonder if any of the show’s writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.
I’m not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named “Enigma”, because the writers couldn’t spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means “Man of Steel” in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman “Man of Steel” and the Frenchman “de Gaulle”, whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).
So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don’t even try to make their stuff believable.
Noah Millman at The American Scene:
H/T pretty much everybody in the universe, but yes, I, too thought this was pretty funny.
Charlie Jane Anders at I09:
If you think your favorite science fiction TV show is full of nonsensical plot twists and lazy writing, you should check out the World War II documentaries, suggests Squid314 on Livejournal, in the funniest blog post you’re likely to read this week. Who on Earth would believe that the Allies could actually win the Battle of the Bulge? It’s total nonsense, and “Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military
I’m convinced. We should start a write-in campaign to get the writers of the twentieth century fired. Who’s with me? More incredible brilliance at the link.
Joe Carter at First Things:
There have been some great television shows that have explored the theme of war and combat (M*A*S*H, Battlestar Galactica, F-Troop). But I have to agree with the brilliant TV critic Scott that the ongoing series that runs on The History Channel isn’t one of them
Read the rest. You won’t want to miss the part about the “unstoppable mystical superweapon” the never appears in the sequels.
Ed Driscoll at Pajamas Media:
Part of the problem is that in the 1970s, television writers were a crazed, psychedelic lot, a bunch of stoner sixties retreads more into scoring controlled substances than scripting controlled plotting.
Take this rock star wannabe who appeared in several segments of the World at War, and his seriously seventies mullet:
Don’t recognize him? I only knew who he was because his voice preceded his image, but I did a double take when he finally appeared:
Yes, it’s Stephen Ambrose in the early 1970s, back when he was in his mid-thirties, decades before the plagiarism scandals, and prior to that, his more sober C-SPAN and PBS-friendly look:
So yes kids, World War II was pretty cliched, but back in the 1970s, when it came time to watch TV, it was either that or Maude and Adam-12. We made do, somehow.
Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, And Money
These are all fair points. In terms of gritty realism and morally complex drama, you can make mine the Napoleonic Wars. The anti-hero at the center of the action has a great plot arc, the horses look cool, and the whole metric system conceit is so clever I’m surprised people don’t use it in practice. Even the North American spinoff is pretty interesting. It’s just too bad they didn’t let well enough alone after Elba—the TV movie special felt pointless and tacked on.
Just goes to show you that reality rarely makes good television.