Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Texas Rising" - a History Channel attempt at legitimacy


The History Channel decided that they needed to make a 10 hour mini-series exploring the romantic revolutionary war period of The Lone Star State, an era in the 1830's when the winds of change blew over a few hundred miles of uninhabitable desert and scrub land and a bunch of people kicked out of every decent state in the nation hid out here until Mexico got sick of them.

As always, a little background:

I didn't move to Texas until 1979, but I did grow up here, between Dallas, Houston and Austin, and I've been lucky enough to spend time in San Antonio.  I'm partial to the state, but I am also well aware of our checkered past and present.  I do love my state, but it's often the way you love a fun but very disappointing relative.  Say, a brother.  Just for example.  Purely hypothetically.

This guy was Governor for almost my entire adult life.  and, he'd like to be your President.

Growing up in Texas, you're sort of constantly inundated in Texas history in public school (or, so it was when I was a kid), and names like Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston are up there with your American founding fathers.  Names like William B. Travis and David Crockett have passed right into mythology as martyrs of freedom.  Also, we have cows and horses and we're all pretty fond of Tex-Mex and barbecue, so we have a lot to offer kids.  On top of this, I was 11 in 1986 when we had the State Sesquicentennial (that's the 150th birthday), so it was a whole thing when I was in 4th grade.  Prince Charles came!  It was a major deal, man.

In college I had an extra credit class free and wound up taking "Texas History from Prehistory - 1845".

So, and this is a wildly unpopular notion, but there is, in fact, a bit of a difference between the legendary version of history as is taught in public school K-12, and what actually happened and why.  Or, at least, an interpretation of history that doesn't necessarily reflect the narrative of the progress of rich white dudes as a sort of destiny for all.  I know many people find this idea upsetting, especially uncles at Thanksgivings.  But, it is also true, full stop.

I wound up taking the follow up Texas History class, and, ha ha, also got myself a history degree (woooo!  so full of good ideas), focusing as much as possible on Southwest US History in a program that was much more about a broad base of history.  So, ask me to try to remember Roman History sometime.  It is super awkward because it's mostly me blinking at you then saying "uh, aqueducts".

When I saw the History Channel had decided to make a dramatized version of Texas history, I was skeptical.  They don't really have a track record that I'm aware of, and of late, most of their history has involved bearded people pretending to be rednecks on TV and lots of hunting of bigfoots and whatnot.

And right I was.  This show is terrible.  And weirdly so.

The show has honest-to-god name talent such as Bill Paxton as Sam Houston - a wildly fascinating very real guy (both Paxton and Houston, really).  Christopher McDonald.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Deaf Smith (one of Houston's more trusted soldiers during our brief revolutionary war with Mexico.  No, really!  We had one.).  It's a whole passel of talent, and... then the direction of the show is somewhere in the neighborhood of your local community theater's staging of Oklahoma!.  Seriously, it feels like nobody went in for a second take on anything.

Weird and corny choices are made at every turn.  People use made up old-timey phraseology straight out of the cornpone dialog machine.  "She must have been happier than a bumblebee in a cactus patch!" is something no one has ever said.  We do not wake people with a bucket of water after a single "get up".  That's just rude.  There is not invariably a guy named "Luther" in every bar in Texas who will take exception to your status as a dandy, and not every Luther we DO have will willingly take a bullet so you have a proper introduction to the storyline.

And then just lazy stuff, like a seeming intentionally ignorant depiction of Texas geography, such as showing a buffalo-drenched prairie and then labeling the town Nacogdoches.   Which is deep in the East Texas pine belt.  Or the stunning cliffs of Gonzales!  Or saying you're headed "North" to Victoria which is due east from Gonzales.

I mean, your show should at least try not to insult the built in audience of Texans.

You could kind of go one of two ways with the history here.  The legend or the facts.  Either would be interesting for their own reasons.  Certainly seeing something like John Wayne in The Alamo would be a great example of how to pull off that sort of romanticized western magic.  Or, you could take on what actually went down as Anglo settlers poured into Texas between 1821 and 1836, the friction that sprung up, and why Mexico decided to march it's army into Texas (one of their own states) and put down an uprising by their unruly settlers.

The show chooses to do neither.  It seems to have taken an outline of Texas history, figured out who the players were and then make up their own narrative to go along with the rough timeline of the Texas Revolution.

I am sure the decision to skip The Alamo was probably both economic and narrative.  People know the Alamo.*  Why show it?  Well, because The Alamo, for all the glory, was a monster cluster@#$% of historical proportion that somehow we've managed to parlay into a huge battle for justice.  Which makes sense if your definition of justice boils down to "well, the white guys wanted it their way, which totally included slavery."  Justice!  And hating Mexicans for their foreign-ness.

The show absolutely cannot decide how to handle the issue of race, which was a pretty complicated issue in Texas when Anglos weren't mostly being racist white former Southerners.  I won't pretend that Native Americans were just sitting around picking flowers and making friends in Texas by 1836 (read up on the Comanches sometime.  Crikey.), but there really wasn't need to insert daring rescues from Kiowas during your scene about scouting Texas when there was plenty of stuff going on in Texas.

The relationship with Mexico is a tricky one, because, seriously, us white people were not being cool with the pretty laissez faire approach to governing us that Mexico City had.  But in movies the word "freedom" is thrown around a whole lot.  But freedom from what?  We just kept having these little rebellions and kept sending emissaries to Mexico to make demands, and... wow, we were the entitled jerks of the West of the Mississippi world.

The show skims ALL of this and just jumps right in without explaining why there's a war.  You just have to assume that because we've cast Bill Paxton as Sam Houston and a dodgy guy to play the hyper-complicated figure that was Santa Ana that, clearly, the guys in the white hats and skin must be the good guys, so we'll stick with them.

In reality, the war with Mexico feels like one long, bloody Mr. Bean sketch as the hopelessly inadequate Texans kept getting killed by Mexicans until we snuck up on them during naptime (spoilers).  The show does it's level best to start with the late February 1836 conclusion of The Alamo and by the end of the two hour pilot did not make it to the late April 1836 battle of San Jacinto.  Hell, they didn't make it to the late March 1836 Massacre of Goliad (sorry, fans of Rob Morrow).

Inbetween we get worn out tropes of worn out Texans, uninspiring speeches by Bill Paxton who compares himself to George Wasington A LOT.  An unconvincing family subplot around Deaf Smith, and complete disregard for any version of the truth when it comes to Emily West Morgan in order for a really awkward and unnecessary sex scene.

In a way, the show is anti-history.  An odd stance for something airing on "The History Channel".  It doesn't care about facts if it gets in the way of a narrative they want to tell.  It doesn't care how or why we got to this point.  It's interested in characters - sure, characters based on real people, but watered down and turned into stock characters from a million shows and movies you've already seen.  It doesn't care about accuracy in any real way, from geography to motivations to whether or not Santa Ana was stock drug-dealing villain from a low-budget cop movie - because that is exactly how he's played.

I think there IS a great movie out there about how Texas became Texas.  But it's going to be a complicated and nuanced story, and in it, very few people wind up looking good.  Which, in the end, is why so many people depend on the legend in any teaching of history.  But as someone living in this particular patch of Texas, I can tell you - we need a little less of The Legend and a little more of the reality of how the state came to be.  

I have no plans to watch the rest of this mess.  Y'all tell me how it ends up.

*ha ha.  Outside of Texas, they have no clue, so I have learned.


Paul Toohey said...

My favourite thing about this mini series is either the ads which talk about Steve Austin a lot (maybe I'm wrong, but I seem to remember him always going by Stephen) or the fact that they shot it in Mexico.

The League said...

But, really, who isn't a huge fan of "Stone Cold" Stephen F. Austin?

J.S. said...

I was looking forward to this show. I DVRed it, for Pete's sake. The story of the founding of Texas. Sounds interesting enough on its face that it would be hard to screw up. Half an hour in I was so annoyed by the dialogue that I turned it off. The directing wasn't great, but I feel like there's nothing that could have saved this show, given the writing.

The League said...

It's not even good camp. The writing is just absolutely atrocious from dialog to choices of what to show. And, of course, their loose recounting of the unspooling of events. A wasted opportunity.

RHPT said...

So you weren't born in Texas? That means you're not a native Texan! Don't let anyone know. They might try to hang you.

The League said...

I figure it makes me as Texan as Stephen F. Austin or Davey Crockett. Right now I'm a magical unicorn in Austin because I lived here before the mid-90's.