Let me start off by saying two things.
First, for as long as I can remember, it's been my dream to get paid to watch TV. So when I got a press release saying that Ken Burns' iconic Civil War documentary series was going to be remastered and released on Blu-ray for the first time to mark its 25th anniversary, I instantly jumped at the chance to write about it, despite the fact that the back of the box said its running time clocked in at 11 hours.
The second thing is that I fucked up. I'm wildly unorganized and, as a result, I lost the “meticulous” notes that I took during the viewing and only my original drawings survived (don't worry, we'll get to that). So when it came time to write my recap of Burns’s expansive account of this monumental period of American history, I had to go mostly off of my memory, which is admittedly not very good.
That all said, here is my recap of Ken Burns’ expansive 700-minute Civil War doc. Or what I remember of it, anyway.
Around noon, when I finally got around to embarking on this historic adventure, I realized that there was already a DVD in my XBox. I hit "eject" and out popped Da Ali G Show which had been in there for approximately two years. Just to make sure everything still worked, I watched a few episodes of Ali G. (It worked and the show is actually still surprisingly funny.) Finally, after several hours of double-checking that the Xbox still worked, I inserted Civil War's first disc "The Cause" which covers the political climate of 1861 in depth. Very in depth. As someone who knows little about history and cares only about marijuana reform and abolishing the TSA when it comes to politics, this is a bit of a different side of history than what I’m used to. A lot of this hour was setting up the scene for why the Civil War happened. It mostly had to do with slavery, mainly the fact that the North wanted to abolish it and the South wanted to keep it. Even though I knew how this would all end—the greatest spoiler alert of all—I decided to keep watching.
I took the most notes during this hour. Unfortunately I think I left them on the train somewhere when I was going to refill my SodaStream cartridge. Is it me or do you also seem to go through those things really fast? Probably a scam on the part of the soda industry. I wonder if Alex Jones is aware of this. Luckily, I remember a few things. For example, did you know that the Civil War started and ended in the same dude's yard in Richmond? I thought that was pretty interesting. Forgot to write down his name, though. Also, a lot of people died in the Civil War, like over half a million.
I wanted to focus on the music aspect of the DVD because Noisey is a music site but it was mostly instrumental Celtic-sounding stuff, piano interludes, or hymnals. Woulda been a lot cooler if Burns had played some early Megadeth or something more badass but that would probably be a licensing issue. Oh, also this episode introduces a guy you may’ve heard of named Abraham Friggin’ Lincoln!
Seeing Abraham Lincoln made me realize that the last movie I saw that featured Lincoln was Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Then I started thinking about how I wish I could watch that five times in a row instead of this. Ken Burns should make a documentary about Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Anyway, this hour started out with a battle of its own between my Blu-ray player and this disc that kept skipping. I took it out and it seemed like it had some weird gunk on it and realized that while as a teenager I feel like I spent half of my day cleaning CDs, I actually had no idea how to do it anymore. I took it in the bathroom with some toilet paper and wiped it down and then it worked again. Phew. I don't remember a lot from this episode aside from the fact that the average soldier was smaller than me at 5' 8" and 143 lbs. I took a strange, borderline sociopathic satisfaction in the fact that I could intimidate most of these soldiers even though I've only got a couple of inches and five pounds on them.
This viewing also started with another war on my own homefront when I kicked over a glass of water that spilled all over the box and booklet that came with The Civil War, crushing any dreams that I might have to resell this after I finished watching it. Oh well. Maybe I'll just give it to my parents for the holidays. I really hope they aren't reading this. Anyway, right when this one started, I kicked over this full glass of water… oh wait, I already told you about that. Sorry, that's pretty much the most exciting thing that happened to me for a while at this point. This disc taught me that the Civil War was fought in 10,000 places across the country. Today there are 12,802 Starbucks in the USA so I think the parallel that I'm drawing here is pretty obvious.
Hour Five and Hour Six
Could have used some Starbucks because I fell asleep. Woke up with drool in my beard and it made me wonder if that had ever happened to Lincoln. It must have, right? Statistically speaking, Lincoln must have woken up with the occasional drool clot in his beard or gotten a crumb stuck in it and his friends were like, “Abe, you got uh… you got something in your beard, man. No, left. Other left. No, higher. Yeah, OK, you got it, mostly.”
I’m getting a little sick of these Bank of America ads that open up each episode of Civil War. I understand that they were big supporters of this DVD and PBS couldn't have put this out on their own but trying to equate the Civil War with a bank advertisement just seems weird to me. I'm also getting really irritable because my futon is pretty uncomfortable and I've been on it for like five hours or something watching these. I realized that some of the voices of the narrators on this DVD sounded pretty familiar so I looked it up and Jeremy Irons and some other people I forget were on this. John Goodman? No, but someone who I always confuse him with. For some reason after that, I started thinking about Sponge's 1994 album Rotting Piñata and thought I could tweet a joke about that piñata being "really rotten now" but apparently they don't have a Twitter account. Bummer.
By the time hour eight kicked in, I had completely checked out. I’m sure the soldiers who fought in the Civil War would love to hear that—that one day, one of their distant descendants who makes a living by writing words into a magic box would be bored by the banality of their battlefield deaths. Instead of taking notes, I ended up drawing some artistic interpretations of Civil War characters.
On the back of one of them I apparently also wrote "Fuck you, Ken Burns." Sorry, Ken, I didn't mean it. Oh also this was the episode where slavery officially ended so that was pretty awesome even though, let's face it, we all sort of saw that part coming. They also ended this one with a cliffhanger about how much John Wilkes Booth blamed Lincoln for all of his problems so I'm really looking forward to see what happens next…
What the fuck! They were just getting to the Lincoln assassination part but when I tried to play this DVD it only had a "special features" menu. I tried taking it out and putting it into the DVD player like six times and then realized that it's all special features: Shelby Foote interviews, an interview with Ken Burns, and some bullshit about how to teach about this documentary in the classroom. I wasn't sure if I was technically required to watch this part, so I didn't. Then I tried to read the little booklet that came with the box set to see if there was anything in there that might help me flush out my knowledge but the water had kind of warped the pages and they were all sticking together. You know what, I bet someone might still want to buy this if I mark down the price a little bit and add that the booklet is basically ruined up but the DVDs themselves seem to work pretty well. In fact if you want to buy these, email me and I'll give you a really good deal.
I learned a lot from Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, but much like high school, I didn't retain very much of it and spent most of the time daydreaming about Hot Water Music or eating lunch. That said, if you really want to retain the information, I would recommend spacing your viewing out to a few sessions since after four or five hours, the music and narrators all sort of start to sound the same. I will add that there did seem to be a lot of parallels here with the current political climate as far as the nation being split over divisive issues and the fact that progress often comes at a price, but since I can't really remember a lot of the key facts or characters I'm really only basing that on what I imagine to be true. In the end, I did what I accomplished: I got paid to watch television all day and the only casualty was my mental health, which I can't blame entirely on Ken Burns.
Follow TV/futon enthusiast Jonah Bayer on Twitter - @mynameisjonah