Two years ago, History managed to find the sweet spot between its unofficial identity as The World War II Channel and the increasing popularity of exotic hi-def programming with “WWII in HD,” a five-night miniseries featuring digitally-restored color footage from World War II. That was a success, so tonight through Thursday at 9, we get the sequel: “Vietnam in HD,” six hours over three nights with a similar collection of eye-popping restored footage.
(“Korea in HD” seems to have been skipped for now, but with any luck we can get all 11 seasons of “M*A*S*H” release on Blu-Ray to make up for that.)
As with its predecessor, “Vietnam in HD” is very much operating from the Ken Burns playbook(*), with the footage held together by a group of famous actors reading letters and other commentary from the men and women who witnessed the war firsthand. Michael C. Hall from “Dexter” narrates the whole thing, and the other actors include Blair Underwood, James Marsden, Dylan McDermott and, strangely, 3/5 of the cast of “Entourage.”
(*) And in this case, they’ve beat Burns to the punch, as his own Vietnam documentary won’t be airing on PBS until 2016.
But where World War II took place so long ago that many of the protagonists of the earlier project had either died or were ailing, most of the “Vietnam in HD” narrators are alive and well and do a perfectly-fine job telling their stories before they have to pass the baton to the actor “playing” them.(**) Leaning on the actors instead of the participants puts much of the material at a greater remove than it should be, and the brief moments we get with the real people are always more affecting.
(**) And for the most part, every performer does the narration matter-of-factly and in their own voices, which makes it jarring that Underwood chooses to sound like veteran Charles Brown. Some consistency of direction might have helped.
The larger consequence of Vietnam being more recent than World War II, though, is that it’s much less of a novelty to see vivid color footage from it. This was a war that came into America’s living rooms in living color and that’s been chronicled frequently in both documentaries and fiction films for the last 40+ years. The iconography of Vietnam on screen is so familiar that you can probably predict which ’60s songs will appear on the soundtrack right before they do.
“WWII in HD” at times felt like a rough outline of what an actual history of the war would look like, but it had all that amazing, horrifying imagery to compensate. The “Vietnam in HD” footage is no less incredible and/or dismaying, but it’s also much more familiar. Both projects tell you what they’re about with their titles – come for the pretty visuals, stay for the history lesson! – but the first one was, by its very nature, more successful at it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com