World War I began 100 summers ago. This September marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The three-night miniseries “The World Wars” (9 p.m., History, continuing Tuesday and Wednesday) treats them not as separate conflicts, but as a cataclysmic 30 years’ war.
When I first began reviewing documentaries on the History Channel back in the late 1990s, they were decidedly cheap looking, filled with still pictures and stock footage from public domain movies, mostly silent. Things have changed and budgets have grown. “The World Wars” demonstrates how computer graphics can lend a cinematic flair to narrative history. Re-enactments are no longer slow-motion blurs, but competent, compelling re-creations of trench/tank warfare and sea battles.
“The World Wars” was made by the folks behind “The Men Who Built America.” Both series champion the “great man” school of history. “The World Wars” unfolds with overlapping stories of historical figures, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Charles de Gaulle and Douglas MacArthur — men who fought in one war as young soldiers and who assumed leadership in the next.
Contemporary statesmen and military leaders, including Colin Powell, Stanley McChrystal, John McCain and former British prime minister John Major, offer commentary that ranges from insightful to obvious platitudes. This dovetails with the main narrative that unfolds in a series of anecdotal snippets. “The World Wars” is picture book history at its best — but at best, a picture book history.
With its focus on personalities, much history can be lost, or deliberately truncated. An early discussion of the Russian Revolution and Vladimir Lenin leaves out a staggering number of events. Lenin arrives from Swiss exile and immediately stages the October 1917 revolution, completely omitting the February 1917 revolution and the czar’s abdication that preceded his arrival. Details, details.
An ambitious project, this epic miniseries is an odd choice for Memorial Day, a day set aside to recall the many fallen soldiers who comprise the silent legions beneath countless headstones. This is their day. “The World Wars” treats the average soldier like so many statistics, while championing the view that history is only made by the great, or the greatly evil.
Tonight’s other highlights
- “American Ninja Warrior” (NBC, TV-PG) returns for a sixth season with a look back (8 p.m.), and two hours of the qualifying round (9 p.m.).
- Amateur cooks compete on the fifth-season premiere of “MasterChef” (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
- A young man learns of his grandfather’s heroism in the 2012 drama “Memorial Day” (8 p.m., CW), starring Jonathan Bennett and James Cromwell.
- An imminent attack inspires collaboration on “24: Live Another Day” (9 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
- On two episodes of “Louie” (FX, TV-MA): complaints (10 p.m.); connections (10:30 p.m.).
- Parents raise two challenging children on “Born Schizophrenic: Jani and Bodhi’s Journey” (10 p.m., Discovery Fit and Health, TV-PG).
- Smoked meat stars on “BBQ Pit Wars” (10 p.m., Destination America, TV-PG).
Late night Don Rickles, Carmen Lynch and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” (11:35 p.m., CBS) ... Nathan Lane, Adam Carolla and Royal Blood appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (11:35 p.m., ABC). Anthony Bourdain, Colin Quinn and Paramore visit “Late Night With Seth Meyers” (12:35 a.m., NBC) ... Craig Ferguson hosts Shailene Woodley, Dan Boulger and Wild Child on “The Late Late Show” (12:35 a.m., CBS).
Kevin McDonough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.