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On TV, Thanksgiving redefined with killing, theft, grave-robbing

In case this part of the story was missing from your child's grade-school Thanksgiving pageant, TV is here to tell us this holiday week that the Pilgrims were a bunch of grave-robbing, food-stealing killers who lured a Native American leader to what he thought was a meal of peace, only to cut off his head and stick it on a pole.

Yeah, just like "Game of Thrones."

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Yes, let's all gather around the screen for a new TV ritual along with football and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Who needs all that talk about American exceptionalism anyway?

The role of television in shaping our sense of identity and national history has long been a subject of debate. Even Ken Burns' "The Civil War," which debuted 25 years ago on PBS, led to fierce editorial-page and cable-TV arguments about what he left in or out. Some questioned whether a filmmaker rather than trained historians should be shaping Americans' shared memory.

But Burns is a historical purist compared with a new school of TV history in ascent, thanks to Rupert Murdoch's National Geographic Channel ringing up record ratings with dramatizations of the "Killing" books written by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. They include: "Killing Lincoln," "Killing Kennedy" and "Killing Jesus." "Killing Reagan" is on its way.

The two camps of TV history are on Plymouth Rock display with "The Pilgrims," premiering Tuesday on PBS, and "Saints & Strangers," airing Sunday and Monday on National Geographic.

"The Pilgrims," a documentary from Ric Burns (Ken's brother), is as much a meditation on the life, writings and dark faith of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation for three decades, as it is a history of the settlers.

Bradford's voice, performed by Roger Rees in his last role before his death in July, not only drives the production, it gives it a poetic, even elegiac tone. It feels at times as if Bradford is speaking across the ages to us as we watch and hear Rees onscreen.

Even though there is more historical re-enactment than is typical for them, the staples of any production by either of the Burns brothers are included. They range from historians and culture critics carefully edited to deliver context and insight, to checks and counterchecks on source materials.

The film breaks from Bradford's harrowing story line of settlers dying on a daily basis during their first bleak winter to have one of the talking heads explain that Bradford seems to have purposefully ignored how the Pilgrims dealt with death.

"In Bradford's history, he really turns away from the corpses," Kathleen Donegan says. "There's no record of burials, which with mass mortality, with the dead outnumbering the living, would account for a major activity of the group. So the question becomes: What happened to the dead?"

Donegan answers her own question with court testimony given by a man who arrived in 1623 and asked settlement members what they did with all the bodies during that winter of 1620. He was told that dying men and corpses alike were dragged into the woods and propped against trees with muskets placed beside them. The hope was that Native Americans would think the settlers had a line of sentries posted.

She also deconstructs a piece of false history later written by Increase Mather, father of the more widely remembered Cotton Mather, who claimed the Pilgrims buried their dead at night and planted corn over the graves that first winter to keep the Native Americans from knowing how many had died. She says that the real story of leaving them to die and/or rot in the forest was "too transgressive."

Even the film's executive producer, Jeff Bieber, acknowledges in press materials for the show that it is a "dark and deeply unsettling" account.

But what the film seeks to capture, he says, is historical truth: "the true, unvarnished history of the Pilgrims" rather than the "mythologized Thanksgiving story."

If "The Pilgrims" is a survival story told as origin myth by Bradford and fact-checked by historians, "Saints & Strangers" is an action-adventure tale punched up for the entertainment dictates of prime-time television.

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"Given our early success with our scripted fare, further strengthened by the recent record ratings of 'Killing Jesus,' we wanted to find our next brand-definitional scripted television event. And we found that in 'Saints & Strangers,' which is the ultimate story of adventure and exploration," Courteney Monroe, CEO of the National Geographic Channels, said in a statement when the production was announced.

Unlike the in-depth and rather slow opening of "The Pilgrims," which responsibly tries to contextualize them as a radical religious sect living in Holland, "Saints & Strangers" gets right to the action.

The film opens at Cape Cod with a close-up of Bradford, played by Vincent Kartheiser of "Mad Men," standing in the sand, his head bowed in prayer. As we see a line of men — some armed and wearing body armor — getting out of the small boat that brought him ashore, we hear Bradford in voice-over.

"They called us Pilgrims, but today we are thieves," the voice-over says, as viewers see images of the soldiers and settlers looting an Indian grave.

"Our faith helped us across an ocean — faith and a contract with strangers," he continues, as viewers see Bradford and the others walking through the woods. "The Merchant Adventure Company, without whose support we could not have afforded the journey. They came for fortune. We came for God — to build a new life, to worship as we please, free from persecution."

As the men hear sounds in the forest, some stop and look around apprehensively.

"Starved and desperate, 102 passengers arrived in the New World guided by the Lord," Bradford says in voice-over. "But there are some things God neglected to mention."

And then, after all of 58 seconds, the first arrow comes flying at the settlers and they are chased through the woods by Native Americans as the soundtrack pounds with ominous drums.

Even with Kartheiser's weak, one-dimensional performance as Bradford and all the emphasis on action, this is a not a cartoon version of the Pilgrims. The understanding of the way our identity is rooted in the shotgun marriage of commerce and religion is a nice insight. And even though an executive producer and a writer are straight off the "Killing" franchise, Eric Overmyer of "The Wire" and "Treme" is also credited as an executive producer.

But there is none of the resonance of "The Pilgrims." "Saints & Sinners" runs fast, shallow and heroic.

Some will see these two productions (and this column) through a culture-wars lens. Ken and Ric Burns versus Bill O'Reilly and Rupert Murdoch. PBS versus Fox News. Liberal versus conservative versions of our national past.

I am not going to argue that one today. But it is important to note the change in the 25 years since "The Civil War" first aired in the kind of history TV is telling and who the principal storytellers are.

That millions of viewers are getting their sense of who and what we were from the O'Reilly school, instead of Burns and his disciples, is a sea change. And since the "Killing" histories are killing in the ratings, there will be more.

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In this age of identity politics, most of our focus seems to be only on the tribe to which we belong and how we think it is being treated or mistreated in American life. We seem utterly confused about — or maybe indifferent to — what it means to be part of that larger group called Americans.

We should be careful about who we let use the power of television to define that for us. Origin stories and holiday media rituals matter in the ways that they shape our perception of the past and our dreams of what we can become.

Truth is truth, and we shouldn't be lying about our past. But I have to admit: It is going to take a while for me to think of this holiday with a bloody head sticking on a pole instead of "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."

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On TV

"Saints & Strangers" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on National Geographic. "The Pilgrims" premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.

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