Hosted by former Daily Show wisenheimer Brian Unger How The States Got Their Shapes delivers exactly what it promises, but it does so in a fun way. Unger travels the country, explaining the hows-and-whys of state borders, whether they be based on water, feuds or surveying errors. It's all assembled in a clever way, with Unger reigning in the smarm just enough to come off as sarcastically entertaining without being a complete tool.
My first hunch was that each state would be getting its own episode (hello potentially excessive padding) but instead - and this is a good thing - each ep follows a thematic thread touching on multiple states. For example, in the first installment it's all about rivers, and how nearly every state has water on a border. That all seems pretty logical for defining borders, but that's just the jumping off point, as other episodes examine elements such as how the so-called "rebellious states" earned their shapes, with groovy nuggets such as how Texas almost became five separate states or why exactly are there a North and South Carolina. Fascinating stuff, and it seems like information every American should have at least a basic understanding of, but it's nothing I was ever taught in school.
I'm not going to ramble on with the cool tidbits I picked up - that's for you to learn on your own - but anyone familiar with History Channel series will find the production values on par with other programs the network has aired. Unger is a likeable host - funny and sarcastic - and the episode pacing is fast, lively and well-assembled. The themes are diverse enough so that there is little in the way of rehashing material already covered. I just may never look at a map of the United States the same way again, and I consider that a real plus.
As one might expect there's plenty of neat trivia in every segment, and considering how most of us take state boundaries for granted I found it constantly rewarding to learn why things are shaped like they are. I realize this will probably indelibly categorize me as a nerd, but I'm okay with that. I love learning new things, and when the format is so casual AND informative as this one it is really effortless to get educated. And while this isn't info one might use on a daily basis, it's still worthwhile factoids to be aware to be able to liven up that next family road trip.
All ten episodes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Edges lack a consistent pop, coming off soft periodically, but colors appear lifelike and natural. There's nothing terribly noteworthy of these transfers, but they're pleasant enough without being especially remarkable.
Audio is 2.0 stereo, but it is more than up to the task, delivering clear narration by Unger and lively musical transitional elements. Simple, but effective.
This four-disc set has the ten episodes of season one spread across the first three platters, with the fourth housing a bonus How The States Got Their Shapes special (01h:27m:53s) that was more-or-less the pilot of sorts for the series. The pacing on this feature - also hosted by Brian Unger - is a bit manic, but the information is fascinating and could serve as a condensed version of the entire season.
You can't beat quirky and educational, and if the title of this doesn't immediately hook you then I guess you might not be onboard for this fun History Channel series.