I haven’t been very kind to the History Channel in recent years. They shifted from showing History documentaries to showing reality programming, some which isn’t remotely History related, and programs that feature thinly supported conjecture, conspiracy theory, and poor method. Good examples of this are Hunting Hitler and Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. I understand that they need to balance information with entertainment, but their recent efforts have forgone accuracy, objectivity, and method for sensation to drive ratings. Happily, their most recent documentary series, The Cars That Made America, did not fall into that trap.
The series title is “The Cars That Made America,” but it isn’t about the cars, it’s about the automotive industry in the United States and the men that drove the industry. Instead of focusing on the cars, the series instead focused on major figures in the industry, such as the heads of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. It could have included more figures and more companies, but I think that concentrating on the big three made it tighter and easier to follow. It showed how they drove the industry, how the industry changed the country, and how changing times, in turn, influenced the industry. I thought it did a good job of fleshing out the personalities of the company heads without turning it into hero worship or hagiography. Henry Ford, arguably the most intriguing of the figures, is a good example; it showed both the good he did for automobile and his company but also showed how he harmed his company and the poor relationship he had with his son, Edsel. Likewise, it didn’t paper over how he used Harry Bennett as an enforcer.
Production wise, it’s much like their The Men Who Built America series in that it combines re-enactment with interviews of historians and experts in the field. With this series, however, they also utilized interviews with NASCAR drivers (although with some of them it seemed more like they were reading from a script rather than giving their own thoughts) and Mario Andretti. I have to admit that I was skeptical at first of using the NASCAR drivers, but I quickly realized that they were being used as hooks; they’re familiar personalities who could pull viewers to the program. The producers used them to make bullet points – to present major points or themes which were in turn elaborated on and fleshed out by historians and industry experts. I think it was a pretty good idea that probably resulted in more people paying attention to the historians and experts than they would otherwise.
Overall, I think it was their best documentary in recent years. It struck a good balance between being entertaining and being informative and did a good job in showing how the automobile and the automotive industry changed United States history while itself being shaped by historical events and trends. This isn’t something I’ve been able to say in recent years, but… Well done, History Channel!