Following the success of their 2009 big event series "WWII in HD" The History Channel readied a viewer base, who if they were like me, were astonished at a return to form for the network, for an ambitious big budget, nine-part event titled "America: The Story of Us." Debuting in the spring of 2010, one only need look at the number of viewers steadily decline to realize that the series didn't keep the average American riveted, which is astonishing considering it's also a return to mediocrity, employing all the flash and shallowness that The History Channel has been plagued with over the past few years. After making its way onto DVD in a standalone series release as well as individual episode releases, History offers the enthusiastic fan the chance to plunk down more money on this "Collector's Edition" re-release. Just what is inside? Well, let me save previous owners some time and hard earned money. It's the exact same series release as before with the added bonus of a vintage special (from the "Modern Marvels" series) titled "The Statue of Liberty: Enlightening the World" and the previously released paperback companion book titled aptly "America: The Story of Us." History spares no expense slapping these two separate pieces together in the flimsiest paper box imaginable and asks for more money than if one were to buy them separately.
I could stop there, but there are some out there who still might be intrigued and it's my duty to tell you what the series gets right but mostly gets wrong. Narrated handsomely by Live Schreiber, "America: The Story of Us" attempts to distill more than two centuries of US history into a twelve-part, 540-minute total series with the final episode focusing on 2001 and beyond which speaks volumes as to how skewed the series is. The first two episodes start of earnestly enough covering early settlers and the growing rebellion from Britain. In History's defense, no one should expect 90-minutes of "edutainment" to give anything more than a brief overview of certain events; History themselves have entire box sets dedicated to the Revolutionary War, that I would actually highly recommend. However, keeping with their sad modern tradition of style of substance, more than enough time is wasted on flashy waste.
Anyone whose had the misfortune to see any one of History's "historical" movie-tie in specials knows they love gaudy CGI and any chance to shoehorn in a celebrity, and although this program isn't connected to a movie, it doesn't keep it from being guilty of both offenses. Famous faces that offer their own contributions to "history" range from sensible choices like Tom Brokaw and Colin Powell to well...Michael Douglas and Donald Trump. Gone are the days of the dry but at least informative expert starting the obvious or offering his or her own, sometimes-pompous assessment on matters. The CGI that makes for the one-two punch to good taste and education is second-rate and largely accomplishes nothing but provide a visual stimuli for viewers with the lowest attention spans (the editing is hyperactive to boot) and drive away those seeking something informative.
The whole program isn't a wash and the first half of the series, gives a good broad overview of key events that should serve as a springboard for further personal research (including going back and checking out History's output of a decade or more ago), but as the Civil War is quickly glossed over and we move into the 1900s and beyond, the program spirals into levels of embarrassment I didn't think were possible. Forget learning anything about World War I (the episode devoted to World War II is likely a miracle for existing) or Korea or Vietnam; I think you get the point. The series ends with a whimper resorting to one step shy of screaming interesting facts at viewers and the sad reality is, I know from personal experience, the generally shoddy production speaks more to America's youth than a textbook ever will, if they can muster the interest at all.
Chalk it up to pandering to the status quo or over-ambition, I would wager a little of both, and "America: The Story of Us" ends up a mixed bag. As previously stated it's one of the few programs of its kind that tries to cover everything as quickly as possible but does so at the expense of substance and the employment of frivolous elements. History, despite their lineup of glorified reality shows is still capable of multi-episode A-level educational programming. "America: The Story of Us" shows us the potential is there, but not being used properly.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is another rarity for History and while not technically impressive is a huge step up from the standard non-anamorphic fare. Colors are slightly muted and detail is above average. The episodes all sport some minor compression artifacts and a hint of edge-enhancement that render them flawed but still watchable.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is solidly mixed with good balance between music, effects, and narration. Had this been properly mixed to a 5.1 track, it would have sounded great, a rare treat in documentary programming.
The extras consist of some unused "bonus" footage that was likely cut for time constraints, the previously mentioned archival "Statue of Liberty" episode and the companion book which is far more visual than textual, keeping in line with the quality and tone of the series.
Bottom line, if you already know you like "America: The Story of Us" you likely have the previous release and nothing offered here is worth repaying for (the book can be purchased separately). If you didn't previously own it, pick up the two pieces (and frankly the book is rather disposable) separately, as this package is rather overpriced as-is. For everyone else, use this series (mostly the first half) as a stepping-stone only on a greater path to discovery. Rent It.