Tonight on Fox News, the channel’s ambitious 12-part series on the Civil War concludes with the episode “Brother vs. Brother.” Episodes 1-11 mainly focused on a historic individual like Union General Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln, and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis as the story advanced chronologically from 1860-1865. Tonight’s episode, according to an email from a Fox News rep, promises to “examine the defeated South as they begin to craft the ‘Lost Cause,’ a justification for the war that hides the true motivations of the Confederacy. The episode will deconstruct the myth and shed light on the truth behind secession, the war and the cause slavery.”
Without glossing over the divisive issues that led to the conflict, the series to this point has played it pretty straight, including profiling the Confederate side of the war without the usual biases of politically correct, 21st Century hindsight. It will be interesting to see how the final part tonight wraps it all up. Recent polls have shown that Americans’ opinions are still closely divided on the question of the main cause of the Civil War – slavery or states’ rights. As the Web site Civil War Saga summarized some of these polls recently, “it appears that the debate about what caused the Civil War isn’t over yet and probably won’t be anytime soon.”
Legends & Lies is described as a docu-series or a docu-drama. It makes generous use of newly filmed dramatic re-enactments of historic events. This technique has the potential of appearing to be staged, unrealistic, and tacky, but the producers of this series have done an admirable job of accurately and believably depicting events from 150 years ago. Each episode also makes use of on-camera commentary by contemporary historians and academics and is narrated by Fox News host and author Brian Kilmeade.
The first two seasons of Legends & Lies, which aired in 2015 and 2016, were executive produced, hosted, and narrated by Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News Channel’s #1 personality at the time. O’Reilly left the network under a cloud in April 2017 which apparently delayed the broadcast of season 3 for one year. O’Reilly has vehemently denied all of the allegations leveled aginst him in the media starting with a New York Times feature story on April 1, 2017 that ultimately led to advertisers defecting from his show and the subsequent loss of his position at Fox News. Exactly one year ago, a book titled Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Civil War, co-authored by O’Reilly and David Fisher, was published, apparently timed to coincide with the original scheduled premiere of season 3. By the time the Civil War series finally appeared nine months later, Brian Kilmeade had replaced O’Reilly as the on-camera personality and narrator.
Unfortunately, most of the media’s coverage of season 3 of Legends & Lies focused on the fact that O’Reilly’s name appeared in tiny print in each episode’s end credits as one of the executive producers – rather than a review of the series itself.
Legends & Lies: The Civil War brings to mind Ken Burns’ 9-part traditional documentary series (no re-enactments) The Civil War which originally aired on five consecutive nights on PBS in September 1990 and has been repeated several times since then. Burns’s Civil War series remains the highest rated program in the history of PBS. An average of 14 million viewers watched it each night during its first run 28 years ago. Although the Fox News Channel version did reasonably well in the ratings, the television landscape is so fragmented now that each new episode of Fox News’s Civil War averaged around one million viewers in its first weekly showing at 8 P.M. E.T. The premiere episode on March 25 drew 1,084,000 viewers.