It seems that the History Channel has been the brunt of jokes since time immemorial, whether it was when people dubbed it the “Hitler Channel”, due to their seemingly 24-hours-a-day broadcasting of all things Adolf, or in more recent years, their featuring of endless specials on the Mayan Doomsday and how aliens are responsible for everything humans have ever built on planet earth.
No matter how you look at it, though, non-stop specials on Nazis seems infinitely better than Giorgio Tsoukalos giving us mind-numbing “facts” on how extra-terrestrials built the great pyramids, or how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence after being visited by Martians. This leads me to ask, just how much history is actually left on the History Channel? It seems the only dosage of good programming we get is when they replay some of their older shows, or when we venture on over to their sister network, H2, which has yet to be totally corrupted. So, let’s take a look at some of the programs running on this wonderful network:
How the States Got Their Shape (Historical Value: 9/10)
All I can say is, thank God for this show. Even though episodes can get repetitive, at least it’s REAL HISTORY! The programs are fast-paced and informative, filled with quirky humor by a very interesting host, Brian Unger, who lets his guests do the talking and lead the way without stepping all over them like people on TV today cannot seem to avoid. I find that I genuinely enjoy each and every episode, and this is pure gold when compared to the other shows on this network to follow below.
Pawn Stars (Historical Value: 8/10)
You know you have a problem if this show is one of your network’s leaders for historical value. This is not your typical new-age History Channel show, because I actually enjoy watching it, and the word critics use to describe it, addicting, is exactly what comes to mind. Normally, I DVR it during the week and then watch it with friends or family when we get pizza or Chinese takeout on Sunday nights—it has become a little tradition. However, the people that come onto the show are very easy to make fun of. Where do I begin? The customers who come in with delusions of grandeur thinking that their worthless item will bring them thousands, or maybe when Rick denigrates your priceless family heirloom as not being special at all and only worth $50? How about the experts? There’s Mark who comes in with that stupid Amish-looking straw hat, Drew, the signature guy (oh, excuse me, forensic examiner), Dana who knows everything that ever happened in the universe, including the last time you went to the bathroom, and finally, my favorite, the weapons expert Sean, who thinks that every gun is groundbreaking and can cause world-ending destruction (he also has to give a dramatic pause when asked how valuable something is, to add to the tension). Where does this all fit into history, you are wondering? Well, to be fair, a lot of items that come in through the door are highly fascinating and do show the history that people may have in their attic or find at yard sales and not even know it. More often than not, it is not worth the value they are expecting, but it still makes for good television, that is, when Chumlee isn’t drooling on it.
American Restoration (Historical Value: 7/10)
Now, I have only seen a few episodes of this show, so I cannot fully comment, but it is pleasing to know that not every show on this channel is filled with annoying hosts who make you want to grab the mute button and scream (see: American Pickers). This is a show that you will only love if you are a car enthusiast, and for that, the historical value goes down a notch, but it still is an interesting show that lets us see the beauty of automobiles from a time gone by, and makes that nice new car in your driveway seem like a scrub.
American Pickers (Historical Value: 5/10)
This show is not so much about history as it is looking at junk. At least the items on Pawn Stars are generally clean and have a story behind them, not piled into behemoth stacks of dust and mold, that send hosts Frank and Mike risking their lives so they can buy your rusty gold. I used to watch this show on a regular basis, until the aforementioned hosts began to wear on me. They are not bad, per se, just annoying. The phrase they use most often when a potential pick lets them rummage through their crap is, “Rock Star Access”. This throws me into fits, because you would think the person is allowing them to have an audience with the Pope and Dalai Lama at the same time. Here is a mildew encrusted barn that has not been accessed since Lewis and Clark were in puberty, filled to the brim with items that the owner does not even know are in there, and you think that’s Rock Star Access? Also, what’s with the amount of money they make on the things they buy? It seems that sometimes they barely even double what they spend, which is absolutely ridiculous in a business sense. Nevertheless, some of the items they find are actually pretty cool, and when they explain what they were all about, that’s where some history seeps through.
Brad Meltzer’s Decoded (Historical Value: 4/10)
If you are a fan of Dan Brown-esque novels or conspiracies, this show is for you! This is yet another program I find myself watching just so I can make fun of it. If it was not so cheesy and staged, it might actually be a decent show. After all, how cool is it to be a “detective” trying to solve the world’s greatest cover-ups? Unfortunately, the hosts of the show make Frank and Mike seem like Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. First, you have that guy with the notebook (I do not remember their names, and I am too lazy to look, but you’ll know who I am talking about) who rushes to jot everything down, even though the show is being filmed and everything the person he is interviewing is saying will be recorded for later use. Then you have the girl who does nothing but wrinkle her nose when the camera does the dramatic facial close-up whenever someone says something shocking. Lastly, there is the third little minion who Brad sends on his merry way who never seems to do anything useful. Am I missing someone? Oh yeah! Brad Meltzer himself, who stands in front of a riddle-filled green screen reading off a teleprompter word for word during his five minute monologues of cheap one-liners and brain busting ultimatums of governmental dominance. There is some historical value here, though, and that is during the back-story of whatever conspiracy they are exploring. In the episode a few weeks ago about Patton, I actually learned more than I thought about the General’s life, and there have been a few other episodes where the information is pretty good, until they start going off on their paranoid tangents.
Ancient Aliens (Historical Value: 1/10)
Once again, there is some fascinating information present in the back-story, but it all comes to an end as soon as the main host Giorgio Tsoukalos (pictured on left) starts spouting his nonsense. Blowout hairstyle and creepy smirk aside, has anyone this nuts ever been allowed to speak as though he is talking about fact as much as him? This show is nothing but a misleading heap of garbage that only the History Channel could produce. This takes every invention that humanity has ever made, anything great that we have accomplished, and relegates it to nothing more than the intervention of extra-terrestrials (or as our Greek friend above says, estra-terrestials).
I must admit, the initial two-hour special was fascinating, but then they had to go and make a regular series out of it. This is another show I watch on a regular basis, but as a work of science fiction. If you watch it with that mindset, you will enjoy it—other wise, it will scare the crap out of you that people actually believe this stuff.
Ice Road Truckers, Swamp People, and IRT Deadliest Roads (Historical Value: 0/10)
What do all three of these shows have in common besides a lack of history? You’ve seen one episode, you have seem them all. Between Ice Road Truckers and their spinoff on deadliest roads, I cannot think of a more boring and repetitive series, aside from seeing toothless hicks in suspenders wrestling alligators in swamps before blasting their brains out with shot guns. These shows actually have quite a bit of following, but is proof of how far the network has slipped. There is not one iota of history present here, yet the network trumpets these shows like they’re going out of style. All I can say about Swamp People is, if the people down south want to stop being seen as a bunch of backwards red-necks by the rest of the country, they should try to get this show taken off the air. I have never seen so many disgusting, sleazy people put on a pedestal for all the world to see (unless you count Jersey Shore) while being marketed as historical content. The History Channel should be embarrassed about this, but instead, their ratings are high and that is all they care about. We live in a world inflicted with stupidity, which is why people think these shows are great.
There is so much wrong with the programming on this network, its not even funny. I have been skeptical for years, but have never felt more angry since their Gettysburg documentary aired back in May. It seems that since then, all the bad has just shone through, and the light is so blinding that it is hard to find some goodness here. While a few months ago, I thought they were returning to greatness when they made Third Reich: The Rise and Fall, which was brilliantly done, they then have to go and ruin it with something like their latest show, Hairy Bikers, which I have not yet seen. This will feature, you guessed it, two “hairy bikers” who ride around the country looking for the best restaurants. Interesting premise, but how is that history? Shouldn’t that be on the Food Network instead? It is the little things like that which doom the network that seems more concerned with polluting our brains with reality garbage and endless apocalypse shows. Even The Universe, after running out of ideas, has resorted to scenarios of how comets or meteors can cause the earth’s destruction.
In addition to that, I just watched an episode of Nostradamus Effect last night, which said the Ancient Egyptians left us warnings in hieroglyphics about the end of the world, and how the Great Pyramids themselves were built for that very reason. While I do not consider myself even an amateur Egyptologist, I have seen enough specials and done enough research to know that I have never once in my life heard anything about such ideas, even on the older History Channel Egyptian shows. Combine everything I have said in this article with re-runs of Monsterquest, Life After People, and Mega Disasters, and unless you were told prior, you would not even realize you were talking about a history network. My last question is: what will happen to this station if the world does not end in 2012?
Greg Caggiano is a 20-year-old historian, writer, and hockey coach whose sports writing covers New York Rangers hockey and San Francisco Giants baseball. His blog, From New York to San Francisco, also features his musings on movies, music, books, history and current events.