Outside of C-SPAN and The Weather Channel, The History Channel may be the most reassuringly neutral spot on the cable dial. Even its most patriotic programs maintain a sense of perspective, rarely shying away from the violent compromises that make the world. The channel's documentary miniseries 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America takes "clear-eyed" to an even higher level, offering a slant on American history that's simultaneously strong and somewhat bleak. Produced by Susan Werbe and Joe Berlinger—and featuring work by such award-winning documentarians as Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, R.J. Cutler, Kate Davis, and Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein—10 Days looks past the Boston Tea Party, Pearl Harbor, and the Kennedy assassination, considering how this country was really shaped by labor unrest, civil riots, and publicity stunts. The result is a vision of America where democracy is touted and thwarted by turns, and any citizen can grow up to be a martyr.
Some of these 45-minute specials play like fairly standard History Channel fare. (The first, "Massacre At Mystic," about a slaughter of Native Americans, is so visually uninteresting that it might as well be a radio play.) But others take real chances: Cutler's "Shays' Rebellion: America's First Civil War" intercuts the standard historian interviews with re-enactments animated by Bill Plympton, while Friedman and Epstein's "Gold Rush" interviews the historical re-enactors themselves, and Berlinger's "Murder At The Fair: The Assassination Of President McKinley" gathers the insights of Assassination Vacation humorist Sarah Vowell, and stages re-enactments that play like a fever dream, ending with a haunting shot of the grave of assassin Leon Czolgosz being doused with acid.
Still, the style of the documentary episodes is less essential than their content. The "unexpectedly" in the title refers less to the days themselves than to their presence on a list like this. Taken together, they tell a story about how individual visions of America—filtered through opportunities to pick up gold from the ground, become a rock star like Elvis Presley, or shoot a president—get co-opted or crushed. The series isn't completely despairing. Sinofsky's episode about Presley's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show suggests that it helped heal America's racial and social divisions, leading directly to the events depicted in Marco Williams' series-closing "Freedom Summer." But in 10 Days at least, the revolution Presley precipitated is one of the few that doesn't begin and end with a hail of bullets.
Key features: A 15-minute featurette about the series' origins.