John Adams (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Paul Giamatti playing a jerk. He’s the best at it!

Quick synopsis: The events of John Adams’ life covered by the book of the same name by David McCullough.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Adams was the lawyer for the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. He got most of them acquitted. If you didn’t know that then you need to read this blog more.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I can’t pick just one! Don’t make me!

My Take: Ah, yes. This is my sweet spot. Give me some good American Revolution TV and I am in heaven.

Sometimes Hollywood casts characters perfectly. John Adams was a very smart and acerbic man who was short and stocky. They got Paul Giamatti. No brainer.

Abigail Adams was an amazingly intelligent woman who would not suffer fools. Laura Linney? You’re damn right. (Side note: If you don’t know how amazing Abigail Adams was just start with Wikipedia. Can I have a historical nerd crush? I can and I do.)

Once you knock those two roles out of the park then the rest is easy. A lot of other characters are well cast but this whole thing hinges on John and Abigail and they are perfect. I actually read some reviews who complained Giamatti was miscast. People are stupid sometimes.

The series takes the viewer from right before the Revolution to Adams’ death and covers all the major aspects you would expect. Is it perfect history? No. There are some understandable liberties taken for dramatic effect (and some which are just baffling), but for the most part it keeps the history pretty well intact. It’s also interesting and an easy watch.

Verdict: Watch this. Now. Go. I give you permission to stop reading this blog but come back right after.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Chernobyl
  • Saints & Strangers

Catherine the Great (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Bold move by the screenwriters making Catherine the Great suck.

Quick synopsis: Part of Catherine the Great’s life but not really.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You can watch the first episode. All of it is exposition in a very distracting and terrible way.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Don’t watch this if you are a history nerd. You will lose your damn mind.

My Take: Chernobyl was really good on HBO. This is not.

Small confession up front. I am not a professional TV critic. Please hold your shock. This is a good thing because I only had to watch the first episode of this miniseries and then I could walk away. I did.

The first episode is just one gigantic and annoying exposition dump and not even a good one at that. Exposition is important in catching the viewer up on what is happening and who people are. However, when a character explains something to another character you need to be careful not to pull the viewer out of the moment by doing something stupid. Such as, it makes no sense to have a character explain to Catherine the Great her own life. SHE IS CATHERINE THE GREAT. SHE KNOWS HER OWN LIFE.

Another example: multiple characters talk back to Catherine the Great. That would not happen in Russia during this time. You’d be killed. Catherine the Great was (comparatively) humane. It’s Russia, though.

Another problem: Helen Mirren is an amazing actress. However, she is also not young. I spent the entire episode trying to understand when this was all happening chronologically because the details were all over the place and Helen Mirren looks her age.

I finished the first episode, dear reader. I am sorry, but I refuse to go any further. I’ll probably watch one of the recommendations at the bottom all over again.

Verdict: Don’t. Just don’t.  

If You Liked This Then I Can’t Help You. If You Want Something Good:

  • Chernobyl
  • Saints & Strangers
  • John Adams

Versailles

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: T&A with a touch of history.

Quick synopsis: The story of Louis XIV and his buildup of Versailles as the center of the French aristocracy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: They do a whole story arc on the Man in the Iron Mask! It’s probably made up though. But maybe not!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: They actually shoot some stuff at Versailles! And it makes me wish I were born a king….

My Take: This show was so trashy. I loved it.

Chronicling Louis XIV’s move to make Versailles the epicenter of France, this show takes you through various intrigues from he Affair of the Poisons to the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession. All of these things take back seats to boobs, butts, and pretty clothes.

Like a lot of historical shows loosely based on actual events, Versailles plays fast and loose with the facts. At various points, people’s ages at the time of events are grossly incorrect, but the show needs pretty faces so what can you do?

It could quickly go off the rails every episode if not for my MVPs of the show, Philippe d’Orleans and Chevalier. The lovers are an open secret at court and the actors obviously have so much fun. Philippe’s extremely screwed up childhood (seriously, google it) allows Alexander Vlahos, the actor, to be a million different awesome people in one.

Plus, a lot of nudity.

Verdict: It’s a fun watch. Maybe 20% accurate but when a guy reigns for 72 years you need to do a little compression of events.  

If You Liked This Try: *Note: Not all are historically accurate, but they are lots of fun. Like Versailles, some are ridiculously inaccurate (enjoyable) trash.

  • Vikings
  • Hatfields and McCoys
  • The Tudors
  • The Crown

Presidents At War

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: George H.W. Bush was a badass this whole time and we didn’t know it.

Quick synopsis: A look at all the U.S. Presidents who served in WWII.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: George H.W. Bush was the youngest naval fighter pilot ever. And he volunteered for it. Even though it was the deadliest position in the armed forces.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Richard Nixon was always a conniver, even in WWII. While the story about him making money off his fellow soldiers probably wasn’t that bad, it just feels like it portends to him being a future mess.

My Take: This series can really be broken down into three tiers of presidents:

The “Real American Heroes” Division – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush

The “Served Their Country with Distinction but Not as Cool as the Real American Heroes” Division – Nixon, Reagan

The “They Were Actually in This Show? I Didn’t Notice” Division – Johnson, Carter, Ford

Seriously, Johnson got a Silver Star because he got on the right plane. I may remember his story, but he still goes in the bottom tier. I digress.

This show is very good to introduce you to all the presidents before they came to office. World War II allowed for some of them to truly distinguish themselves and per my rankings above, some did, and some didn’t. The stories come quick and fast with a lot of interesting tidbits.

Some of the presenters lay it on a little too thick for my taste, but it doesn’t ruin the show.

Verdict: Good show that even non-history nerds will like.

If You Liked This Try: Pretty much any WWII documentary on Netflix. Even the bad ones are pretty good.

Hitler’s Circle of Evil

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The Third Reich was more like high school than you think.

Quick synopsis: The story of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle throughout the rise and fall of the Nazi party focused on Hitler’s underlings.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Hugo Boss was a Nazi! He wasn’t just a garden variety Nazi either. He designed some of their uniforms!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: There were varying levels of antisemitism in Hitler’s inner circle. Goebbel’s probably gets the “super antisemitic” award while Goring fell much lower on the scale. Himmler would probably have killed anyone with a specific color eyes if he thought Hitler would like it.

My Take: Welcome to the most evil popularity contest of all time: the Third Reich!

This miniseries takes you through the formation and destruction (hell yeah!) of the Third Reich by focusing entirely on Hitler’s inner circle and how the power shifted between them. It’s as petty as you expect!

You get some wonderful heartwarming stories such as the reconciliation of Joseph Goebbel’s and his wife, Magda. Oh wait, that only happened because Goring spied on him and turned evidence of his affairs into Hitler. But c’mon, putting two lovebirds back together is a good thing right? Oh wait, they both committed suicide after murdering their 6 children at the end of WWII.

Another beautiful story is the creation of Hitler’s retreat home in the mountains where he can relax with his subordinates and really get to know them. What’s that you say? It was a Machiavellian retreat where everyone backstabbed each other, and the Holocaust was planned? Sick.

My favorite part is when the various authors and historians who provide commentary talk about Martin Bormann. He is the only subject of the entire series that is explicitly called a psychopath. That is some kind of award when you are hanging around Himmler and Goebbels but you get painted as the arch-psychopath.

I will say I have one quibble with the series. It really seems to take agency away from Hitler as the leader of all this evil. It is inevitable when you are focusing on his underlings, but you don’t ever want to forget to hate Hitler the most.

Verdict: Really great series and very interesting for all audiences (but not kids, duh).

If You Liked This Try: Pretty much any WWII documentary on Netflix. Even the bad ones are pretty good.

Chernobyl (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: In Soviet Russia, miniseries make you look incompetent and corrupt.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The miniseries shows what happens when you look into an open nuclear core even for a few seconds. Spoiler alert: You die.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The final episode drastically swerves from actual history but does highlight the most ironic aspect of the entire disaster. It’s not good when your failsafe makes things worse.

My Take: This is a real good one.

Chernobyl does what a lot of TV does not do; it takes something you read about and adds to it. I just recently finished Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl and was very interested to see how much the show would deviate from the actual history. Turns out, very little.

More importantly, the show adds massive visuals to the catastrophe. As good as Higginbotham’s book is (and it is excellent), it is very hard to understand the scale of the disaster. It is too big for words. Chernobyl shows you what it looked like back then and makes you feel how massive the destruction was. Additionally, the show makes radioactivity a pervasive threat which leads to some really tense moments.

Of course, some liberties are taken. For the most part, I don’t take issue with the vast majority of the things they altered. The one annoyance I had was Emily Watson’s character. She is supposed to be an amalgamation of scientists who actually did exist. You get the feeling she is inserted because otherwise the show would be one big boys club. I wouldn’t argue with that except that there is an immensely important woman who was left out of the show. Maria Protsenko was in charge of the massive evacuation of Pripyat and stayed behind after. Her role was not a small one and deserved to be in here somehow.

All that being said, Chernobyl gets it right a heck of a lot more than it gets wrong.

Verdict: A must watch. Scary, darkly funny, and adheres to the history with a couple of exceptions.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl (book)
  • Saints & Strangers (TV miniseries)

Secrets of Great British Castles (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Castles were gross.

Quick synopsis: Author Dan Jones tells the stories behind a bunch of old British castles.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Want to know why rich people changed residences so much? Because they stunk, literally. When the privies were used too much, it stunk up the whole castle and they would move somewhere else while the poop aired out. Thank God for toilets!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Way too many to count. This has tons of great nerd stuff.

My Take: Ever say it would be great to live in a castle? Guess what, that’s a terrible idea!

This is a great documentary series and I am seriously annoyed there are only two seasons. But at least it is two great seasons.

Dan Jones tells the history behind one old British castle each episode. He walks through each of them, discussing how the castle was used throughout the time periods it was active including many gory details (the best kind!).

I especially enjoyed the practical understanding of living in many of these places. They basically enhanced whatever terrible weather the area was experiencing. They were cold and drafty, unless they were hot and stuffy.

Verdict: This is fun and interesting. Give it a try.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Tales of Irish Castles

Saints & Strangers (2015 TV Miniseries)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: So good, even my wife watched half of it.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Mayflower passage through the first Thanksgiving and the establishment of the Plymouth colony.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You know Squanto, but you don’t know Hobbomock. He was part of Massasoit’s tribe and a complete badass. He was such a badass, it was believed he could not be killed in battle. That would be a nice trait to have.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This show does a masterful job with the character of Squanto. While most know him as the friendly Indian who helped grow corn, this series really makes him a friendly but also perhaps two-faced character. The show does not tell you what to think and that’s what makes it a great portrayal.

My Take: This is my favorite TV miniseries and I have no compunction about going total fanboy over it.

The show sticks very much to the real-life script. While a true scholar of the time period (i.e. not me) could find some tricks played with time, characters, and specifics, the main beats are true to history as best as we know. The amazing part is taking all of these big and little details and keeping the story going without completely sacrificing historical accuracy. The only obvious exception being the woman look entirely too clean (especially their teeth) for the time period and the situation. Blame the patriarchy, but I could overlook it.

By far my favorite choice was to give the American Indians their own voices both literally and figuratively. Literally meaning they have actual descendants of American Indians playing American Indians and they speak in their own tongue. What a concept. Also, we see the evolution of their politics throughout the show. These are not the “savages” the Pilgrims often think they are but a system of treaties and alliances just as complex as any in Europe at the time.

I also liked hearing all the American Indians pronunciations of words which are still prevalent in the New England area. As a frequent visitor of Cape Cod, I look forward to obnoxiously correcting everyone’s pronunciation of Massasoit. My family will hate it.

Verdict: Seriously, go watch it now. Watch it and then come right back to this site and keep reading. But I give you permission to take a break and go watch it. Now. Go on.

If You Liked This Try: *Note: None are as historically accurate, but they are lots of fun. In fact, some are ridiculously inaccurate (enjoyable) trash but hey, nice costumes!

  • Vikings
  • Hatfields and McCoys
  • The Tudors
  • Versailles
  • The Crown

They Shall Not Grow Old

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Peter Jackson made a masterpiece. I’m not talking about Lord of the Rings, though.

Quick synopsis: A documentary on World War I that uses new technology to blow your freaking mind hole.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When it goes from black and white to color….as the kids say, “OMG!”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I’m not even giving one this time. If you care about history at all, go see this thing.

My Take: You know how everyone talked about the movie Avatar when it first came out and mentioned how revolutionary the technology used to film it was?

Peter Jackson said, “hold my beer.”

Here’s the set up. Take World War I documentary footage. You know, the type that almost looks stop motion and grainy? Clean it up, colorize, and make nerds scream.

Jackson talked a lot about how important this movie was to him. The care he took is obvious.

There is no other footage or dialogue in the movie except from actual participants. Jackson hired voice actors from the same place as the people in the movie. A guy from the middle of Wales would be dubbed over by a guy from the very same place for accuracy since sound recordings were not quite up to snuff back in the day. But what you hear are his words in what would have been his accent.

And what they choose is also masterfully done. The dialogue is almost mundane which makes it that much more moving. This isn’t a general talking about how important this or that was. It was the guy getting eaten by lice in the trenches.

This movie should have made two billion dollars at the box office.

Verdict: Amazing. Powerful. And downright freaky when you first see the color change.

If You Liked This Try: Incomparable with anything else I have seen.

Expedition Unknown

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Lots of history with a little bit of showmanship and malarkey

Quick synopsis: Host Josh Gates and his team search for various historical items of real or dubious origins.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: During one episode (“Amelia Earhart”), Josh Gates searches under a home for remains. He finds them and then gets questioned by the cops.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The “Viking Secrets” episode is really well done and is a great mixture of thorough history and a little bit of fun. I’d like to be in a Viking fight, too!

My Take: This show is a hell of a lot of fun for a hell of a lot of reasons.

Josh Gates is the perfect host for a show like this. He can play the various characters needed to keep it interesting as the show’s tone can veer from deadly serious, to pensive, to incredulous, to snarky fun. Gates obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously but is game to do a bunch of things I would never do under any circumstances whatsoever. Two prime examples are climbing into a tunnel under a city which was no more then 5 feet tall by 18 inches wide or sleeping in a cave on top of 3 feet of bat guano.

Overly serious historians (read: fun killers) will complain about a few aspects of the show. Number one, there are various subjects of extremely dubious scholarship (there are literally alien episodes). However, I would counter that Gates never tries to tell the viewer something is real when he can’t prove it but he also doesn’t discount anything for the same reason. It makes for good TV because it never puts Gates in the position of telling a true believer they are crazy. He lets them talk.

Another aspect the fun police would complain about is the lack of huge findings. It is true to an extent but also not the point. The show is fun because of the journey and there have been some finds along the way and areas previously unexplored were mapped.

The final nitpick is that Gates is not an actual archaeologist but only has a degree in archeology. Additionally, he hosted a previous show called Destination Truthwhich was entirely about the paranormal. Who cares? Fun is fun!

Verdict: It’s a fun watch. You may need to turn your nose for hard evidence off for a little while but it’s a good time, nonetheless.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mysteries at the Museum