There is nothing that makes me tune out faster on TV productions purporting to be historical documentaries than cheesy reenactments.
And the first hour of Kevin Spacey's "Race for the White House" series that debuts tonight on CNN is filled with them.
The six-part weekly series that looks at presidential campaigns in this year of one of the wildest in recent memory starts at 10 tonight with a look at the landmark 1960 battle between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon.
The lineup for Season 1 will also include races between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush, Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen A. Douglas, and others. The episodes are produced by Kevin Spacey and his business partner Dana Brunetti, who are also executive producers on Netflix's "House of Cards."
I love the choice of Kennedy and Nixon, but I am not so crazy about the execution of it -- especially the reenactments. Kennedy and Nixon were such iconic post-World-War-II figures that you are better off on a series that purports to be a serious historical endeavor to go all in on archival footage, research and first-rate talking heads who can speak intimately and knowledgeably about the race.
Instead of triggering memories of Nixon or resonating with the image in our shared consciousness of the candidate, the actor in the reenactments only serves to remind me how thin and artificial the product on the screen is. Just when I would start to get into the time and place of this epic encounter, I'd get a reenactment with people who neither moved nor looked like the real figures, and I wanted to walk away from the screen.
Why didn't I?
In honesty, mostly because I promised to write a review.
I say "mostly," because I did learn things I did not know about the race I long believed I was absolutely steeped in. It was watershed in the intersection of media and politics, and I studied it in-depth over the years from a media aspect. In fact, I have a column in Sunday's Sun referencing it in-depth comparing it to Donald Trump's brilliant media campaign this cycle. Read that here.
The most fascinating thing I learned was the depth of the opposition to Kennedy among Protestant ministers because he was a Catholic -- and how rattled he was by it. I knew about it, but not the virulence driving it from mainstream figures like Norman Vincent Peale, the minister who popularized the "power of positive thinking."
Amid archival images from the time, viewers see and hear The Rev. Herbert Meza who invited Kennedy to Houston to speak to his fellow clerics. Meza, who sat next to Kennedy on the dais, recounts how the candidate was literally shaking before he got up to speak.
Viewers see archival footage showing Kennedy approaching the podium to virtually no applause. And then, the footage shows Kennedy speaking and the rousing ovation he earned in this lion's den for his performance.
Why in the world, I thought, didn't Brunetti and Spacey stick with this kind of presentation rather than messing it up with cheesy reenactments? That segment talking about Kennedy's Houston speech moved me almost as deeply as reading certain passages in Robert Caro's books on Lyndon Johnson.
The gap between what could have been and what is in this episode makes me angry. We have enough cheap-butt cable channels doing cheesy history and confusing us about who we have been and who we can be. We don't need it on CNN.
There is enough entertainment value in Spacey's narration to hold viewers. It's both dramatic and informed -- and it doesn't insult my intelligence like those blasted reenactments.