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« Darwin's Regret | Main | How Much Does Species Genetic Commonality Matter? »

January 27, 2007

Fact for the Day -- Breweries in the U.S.

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Number of breweries in the U.S. in 1983: 60.
* Number of breweries in the U.S. in 2005: more than 1400.

The food revolution rocks, no? Source: an episode on beer in the History Channel's consistently terrific documentary series "Modern Marvels."

Hey, Wikipedia has an entry about "Modern Marvels." God, I love Wikipedia. I also notice that you can now download some episodes of "Modern Marvels" from the iTunes Store for $1.99 a pop. Of the shows on offer there, I can recommend ... well, every last one of them. "Modern Marvels" is that good. Other terrific episodes for those with DVRs to be on the alert for: "Balls," "Assembly Lines," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Paving America," and "Tea."

I really think "Modern Marvels" is quite the great thing. I mean really-really. I've watched scores of shows. Only a few haven't been first-class, and many have been awfully damned good: not too jazzed-up, direct and informative, gimmick-free, substantial, and -- at an hour per episode -- about as much as I want to learn about most subjects. And what an achievement to maintain this level of excellence year after year. Something I can't figure out: Why on earth is that awful, slow, looooooong Ken Burns so much more celebrated a figure in the TV documentary cosmos than the team behind the crisp and to-the-point "Modern Marvels"?

Small musing: Do we tend to overvalue the One Heroic Creation at the expense of equally wonderful creations that take episodic form? I think we may. We make a big deal out of Ken Burns' "Civil War," for instance, while undervaluing the ever-ongoing (since 1994!) "Modern Marvels." Similarly, does it make sense to enshrine Toni Morrison's "Beloved" as a Great Thing without also sparing a few hosannas for the 12 high-quality novels that Donald Westlake wrote during the same time it took Morrison to finish "Beloved"? Not that I liked "Beloved" myself, of course ... Well, OK, why not just say it? I think Donald Westlake is 100 times the fiction writer Toni Morrison is even though he's written no single novel that compares in colossalness and impressiveness with "Beloved." But he's written an awful lot of tiptop and high-spirited fiction. Why shouldn't that qualify as a genuinely great thing in its own right?

But back to the topic at hand. I've recently been sampling other current documentary series from cable. Alas: I haven't taken a liking to a one of them. What to do? These days my old favorites are wells that have been pumped almost dry. I don't seem to be finding many "Modern Marvels" episodes that I haven't already watched, and The Wife and I have exhausted what those excellent true-crime shows "American Justice" and "City Confidential" have to offer. Can any visitors recommend current documentary series that they've been enjoying? I do like me a good documentary series.



posted by Michael at January 27, 2007


Ken Burns: The Big Snooze.

Posted by: ricpic on January 28, 2007 10:01 AM

I like the American Experience series on PBS. The wide variety of topics they present - and present very well - confirm the uniqueness and exceptionalism of this country. This is why, as a Republican, that’s the only program I can stomach on that network.

Ken Burn's genius is in bringing Hollywood movie techniques and production standards to the documentary form, and thus revolutionizing it. And so did his brother Ric.

And his Civil War documentary was initially presented as a series, a mini-series. Since I was in grad school at the time, taking night classes, I had to record the episodes and then watched them all back-to-back over a long weekend. I was stunned.

Posted by: Jerry Blake on January 28, 2007 11:44 AM

Michael... What? You never dug those History Channel staples dealing with the evolution of the bolt-action rifle and how to load and fire a flintlock mustket?

Actually I thought the HC went soft when they drifted away from that to incorporating mini-dramas with costumed actors. Ruined things, really. Might as well have re-run those 1950s Walter Cronkite "You Are There" shows.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 28, 2007 1:57 PM

Michael - Since I don’t have cable (don’t have time to watch) I didn’t know about “Modern Marvels,” but I will definitely check it out the iTunes downloads.

Hmm. Ken Burns did a pretty good piece on the Brooklyn Bridge for PBS and “American Stories”

I enjoyed most of a recent “American Experience” documentary about John and Abigail Adams, although it was marred by the “mini-dramas with costumed actors” thing that Donald noted. I think the best, most nimble and enjoyable documentary series I ever saw was James Burke’s 1978 series “Connections.” For some odd reason, the DVD of the series is ridiculously over-priced and hard to find.

In a related vein, the Harper Collins published biography series, “Eminent Lives,” has much to recommend it. Covering a diverse range of subjects, from Freud to Ulysses Grant, each volume is limited to about 200 pages.

I also like the short volumes of the BFI Film classics series, all short, rarely more than 100 pages, and all eminently readable. I especially liked the volumes devoted to Shane, The Third Man, The Birds and Blade Runner.

There is not a specific documentary program that I can recommend, but I have been having some fun recently dipping into the Internet streams and podcasts of various BBC radio documentary programs (especially the non-political programs on Radio 4),

Posted by: Alec on January 28, 2007 10:44 PM

Wild West Tech is good, although I don't think they're making new ones. History Channel usually runs them on Saturday mornings. Has the same crisp, fast-moving style. The show is more about the history of technology than the old west.

Posted by: Steven H. on January 31, 2007 6:58 AM

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