The American Future: A History

Acclaimed British historian Simon Schama is not a natural TV presence: His prose is a few notches more stylish than usual PBS fare, his presentation is restless and twitchy, and his bearing is just a touch more effete than the ponderous “manliness” of most news documentary presenters. And yet as unfamiliar and difficult to classify as his new four-part BBC series, The American Future: A History, may be, it somehow works. Each of the four one-hour episodes revolves around a theme, a running debate in American history — economic progress vs. ecological limitations, American republic vs. American empire, religious fervor vs. secular civics, nation of immigrants vs. unified national identity. The style is, like Schama himself, quirky, thoughtful and poetic: a hybrid of video journalism and Ken Burns–style PBS historical documentary. The visual aesthetic is crystalline, almost precious: framed shots of blue skies, dams, tractors, and cityscapes. Ranging over the country (sometimes in five or six different locations in the span of a few minutes) is Schama, who weaves together a historical narrative built around a battle of ideas, dotted with interviews of people facing the same challenges today: Mexican immigrants, West Point cadets, Las Vegas water regulators. Schama is an astute and gifted storyteller, and the series works largely because of his uncanny ability to weave together a variety of somewhat disparate strands into a taught thread. The overall effect is one of eternal recurrence: the 19th-century battle between Colorado river surveyor John Wesley Powell — who favored small-scale, sustainable irrigation projects in the mountain West, and journalist William Ellsworth Smythe, who envisioned a West booming with industry and agriculture irrigated by massive dams, is recapitulated in the debate between conservationist Jimmy Carter and prophet of limitlessness Ronald Reagan. The aim is to be timely and timeless all at once. If it has a major flaw, it’s that the election-year setting sometimes awkwardly places the production somewhere that is not quiet either. But more often than not it leaves the viewer feeling a profound connection between the past, present, and future. Which is, after all, history at its best.