From the network that brought you Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers, and Ancient Aliens comes an actual, honest to god attempt at history. And it won Emmys. I know, I was shocked too. In eight episodes it covers the lives of some of the most famous industrialists (or, if you prefer, robber barons) of The Gilded Age: Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. There's also an episode about Henry Ford but it's pretty much tacked on at the end and really doesn't fit with the rest of the narrative. The most praise I can give it is that it's good for a cable documentary. Which means it's still pretty junky.

The most noticeable (and grating) part about it being a cable documentary was the recap after every damn commercial break. Literally first two minutes of each segment is spent by the narrator restating the premise of the show in an expository lump. The cynic in me wants to say that they did this because it's a cable documentary and they needed some way to pad out the run time, stretching 20 minutes worth of content into an hour-long time slot. Either that or they're counting on the painfully short attention span of their average viewer and do the recaps in order to capture the attention of people who have have just flipped to their channel.

The dramatizations are the only part which is truly well done. The actors are competent and the sets and costuming are excellent at evoking the sense of atmosphere of the time (enough so that the series won an Emmy for costuming). Unlike many cable documentaries I've seen, this one actually avoids the problem with overly dramatic music which is common enough that I'm sure there's a page on TV tropes for it. The wide shots are obviously CGI but what isn't these days? The script...isn't anything special. It's clear that events are cherry picked from history in order to form a better narrative and that complex historical figures are reduced to easily-grasped archetypes, but I blame this on the series' general attitude towards history rather than the specific execution by the writers and actors.

But the interviews, oh the interviews. I've been spoiled by PBS documentaries that use primary sources and interview actual experts. In The Men Who Built America, I got Donald Trump. In fact, the vast majority of the interviews aren't with actual historians. Instead they're with modern day magnates and CEOs such as Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Mark Cuban as well as financial commentators like Jim Cramer. I will, however, at least give them credit for getting Alan Greenspan in on it. These people add 'star power' to the series but it's clear that they know very little about the subject matter. Instead their contribution is to make general claims about business that come across as a self-congratulatory circle jerk about how awesome they all are—“I'm a winner because I win. And I don't lose.” At a time when income inequality is the greatest it's been since the 1920s and the world is still struggling to emerge from an economic crisis caused directly by financiers (who were bailed out by the public), their attitude strikes me as being the most contemptible kind of hubris.

It's not worth watching. Maybe, maybe, if you're just turning the TV on in the background. But honestly if you're interested in the history at all, just spend half an hour reading wikipedia articles or read a chapter out of a book on the topic. I guarantee that it'll have more content and that you'll learn more than you will from eight episodes of this shite.

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