Summer, of course, is the time for watching TV shows that wouldn’t normally captivate us during the “official” TV season. It’s a time when the supremely bloody silliness of True Blood can become one of the top two or three shows on TV. It’s a time when Burn Notice is one of the undisputed kings. And it’s a time when networks try all manner of silly game shows and reality trifles.
Naturally, one of the shows that’s most been captivating me this summer is a wonkily educational show about state borders hosted by Brian Unger. Is History Channel’s How The States Got Their Shapes, which wrapped up its first (and I have to assume only—how are they going to extend this?) season Tuesday night perfect TV? Nah. But it's sure a lot of informative fun. The series, based on the book of the same name by Mark Stein (and spun off from earlier History Channel series The States), takes as its normal form the info-blitz, tossing lots and lots of facts and nuggets of information at the viewer in a format that could be incredibly irritating but somehow becomes endearing in the show’s better episodes. Info-blitz shows (particularly ones aimed at adults) rely on the information being presented striking a substantial part of the audience as totally new stuff to be incorporated into the audience’s worldview. How The States Got Their Shapes isn’t always full of brand new ideas—did you know that the telegraph and texting have a lot in common?—but when one idea flops, the show is off to whatever’s next, giving it an entertainingly breathless feel.
The premise of States is pretty obvious. It’s tempting to say it’s all right there in the name, but a show that was literally just about how the states got their shapes would probably consist of Unger reading the book in front of a classroom map of the nation. Instead, the show has wisely wrapped in a bunch of other interesting stuff and sent Unger on a cross-country quest for geographical fun. The various travelogue portions of the show are as good as anything else in this vein on the air not named No Reservations, and Unger proves an engaging and approachable host when doing the many man on the street interviews that make up the core of the show.
Yet the season finale—“Mouthing Off,” which was all about regional accents and dialects of the U.S.—is pretty good proof that while this was a good summer show for the summer of 2011, there’s probably not enough there to sustain more seasons of television. Don’t get me wrong. I would watch more seasons of this show. But where previous episodes started with a firm focus on, well, how the states got their shapes and only gradually started to drift from that mission, the season finale doesn’t even bother with the central conceit of the show, instead sending Unger out on a quest to find all of the various regional accents there are, even having him speak with those who speak the Ocracoke and Gullah accents of the Carolinas and Georgia. Once the episode was over, my wife opined that the show was fun for about 15 minutes and then just got exhausting, and it was hard to disagree. The dark side of the info-blitz show is that it can lead to a lot of tap-dancing for time and the host straining to fill blank spaces in the narrative.
Part of the problem with “Mouthing Off” was that many of the thoughts expressed were pretty generic. Did you know that people in the northern Midwest often speak with elongated O’s? Or that Long Islanders have an accent that’s often ridiculed? Or that Californians say “dude” a lot? Of course you knew all of this. You were probably also familiar with the fact that some people say “pop” and some people say “soda” (though I’ll admit I enjoyed seeing the few counties in the U.S. where people still say “tonic”), and you’ve probably seen the map the show presented of the county-by-county breakdown of this information. Not every piece of information needs to be new on a show like this. Remember: What the series is going for is speed primarily, followed by amount of new information conveyed. But when roughly two-thirds of your running time is taken up by stuff most people know already, there’s not really a good reason to be doing the blitz.
Another problem stemmed from the fact that what makes the show fascinating is that it digs into that central question of our nation’s history. It’s easy enough to say, “Well, this state has this border because of that river,” but Unger would often take you into fascinating detours about the history of the river or the people who lived near it or the way the river forced explorers or soldiers to find new ways to get through the wilderness. Yeah, just about everybody’s heard of the Hatfields and McCoys, but How The States Got Their Shapes showed just how that feud stretched out to a geographical level, forming various borders that are still marked today. The ways that small things, up to and including individuals, can radically change what our maps look like are the bread and butter of this show, and in its best episodes, these stories were made thrillingly real by the production team.
“Mouthing Off,” however, tries to take as its thesis that the states—or, rather, where we live—also shape us, primarily through how we speak. But this isn’t a terribly controversial notion. Outside of obscure regional dialects like Gullah, there’s no real surprise to finding out that Southerners say y’all, while people in the Pittsburgh area might say y’uns. The man on the street interviews even feel more phoned in than usual, with Unger pretty much just asking people to say things the audience at home might think sound funny—unless the particular accent on display is the accent of that particular audience member.
But I’d still recommend How The States Got Their Shapes overall, particularly if it comes out on DVD. (Actually, I think most of the run is available on Hulu at present.) Unger proves to be a fun host, keeping the whole thing moving as quickly as possible without sacrificing understanding, while the history portion of the show is surprisingly solid, illuminating long forgotten corners of American history or zeroing in on the tiny things you might not know about the pieces of history you’re already aware of. (For example: Did you know that Morse code was recently updated to include a string for @? You would if you watched the finale.) The history of the U.S. is wilder and woollier than these sorts of shows often let on, and How The States Got Their Shapes is always happy to wander off the beaten path and find itself headed down long forgotten byways.
So while How The States Got Their Shapes seems to have run out of steam at the end of its first season, it’s still a pretty great example of how to do a show like this right, and it’s a good example of how television can take a subject that wouldn’t seem to be terribly compelling—the formation of state borders—and make it so. I don’t know where How The States Got Their Shapes goes from here. (Perhaps it makes a dip into international waters with How The Nations Got Their Borders or something.) But for the past 10 weeks, it’s been a reliably entertaining source of solidly educational enjoyment. And there aren’t a lot of shows you can say that about.
Finale grade: C
Season grade: B