Tube Talk: History Channel offers Memorial Day special: ‘The World Wars’

By Paula Hendrickson
Contributing Writer

Long before reality shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers propelled History to the top of cable ratings, it sometimes felt as if the network was wall-to-wall war documentaries.

While some hardcore history aficionados argue some of the network’s most popular shows of the past few years have nothing to do with history, anyone who’s watched Pawn Stars, American Pickers or some of the newer shows knows that’s not entirely true. The stars of the shows dole out bits of historical information and context for all of the items they come across, from weaponry to bicycles and gas pumps to tramp art.

Given the ratings History’s reality shows generate, you shouldn’t be surprised that a Pawn Stars marathon will span most of the Memorial Day weekend, but on Memorial Day itself, History is debuting a three-night event, The World Wars.

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the three-night, six-part miniseries examines both World Wars through the individual perspectives of world leaders of the day. Executive producer — and history buff —Stephen David (who also brought us the Emmy-winning The Men Who Built America) explains how the idea for the project came about.

When you run off the names in The World Wars — FDR, Patton, Churchill, De Gaulle, Hitler, Stalin — these men completely changed the modern world, for better and worse,” he says. “It’s hard to immediately think of any of them as young men. But when we started reaching back into World War I, that’s really what we started to connect with — who these characters were before they were famous … and infamous.”

You’ll have to tune in to see what insights David and his team have unearthed, but this documentary miniseries may well leave you marveling at how much single decisions can impact the future of the world.

Can you ever hope to truly understand deranged men like Hitler or Stalin?” David asks. “I don’t think so, but it’s valuable to remember that they didn’t start life as these fully formed monsters. They were young once, and their experiences in World War I shaped them into what they became in World War II.”

There are very few living people who remember World War I, and World War II veterans are starting to die off. So, getting their stories told is more important than ever. But David takes his work beyond simply documenting who, what, where and how — he looks for the why.

From a creative standpoint, I always want to know upfront that we have characters that our audiences can get invested in,” David says. “Whether we’re talking about The World WarsThe Men Who Built America, or any one of our shows really, it’s not the history itself that I find most fascinating, but the reasons why these historical figures did what they did. Their personal decisions had massive global consequences. And once we start exploring history as the product of complex character motivations, we’re no longer making a show about historical record — we’re making a show about people.”

Programming notes

• The World Wars: Trial By Fire airs on History Monday at 8 p.m. Central.

 The World Wars: A Rising Threat airs on History Tuesday at 8 p.m. Central.

 The World Wars: Never Surrender airs on History Wednesday at 8 p.m. Central.

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to

From the May 21-27, 2014, issue

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