Last May, The History Channel (or, as they like to call themselves these days, History) aired the epic six-hour miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. Boasting such stars as Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton in its cast, the miniseries was bound to attract some attention. What History got was a critical and ratings success.
The critics had largely positive things to say about Hatfields & McCoys. Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Hatfields & McCoys transcends the confines of its age by revealing the feud’s posturing, resentments and callous violence that mirror the dynamics of modern urban gangs…” Entertainment Weekly‘s Ken Tucker said, “…overall, Hatfields & McCoys is engrossing, and enlightening about a feud that proves to be a lot more than the bumpkin brawl of pop legend.”
The first night three part movie scored the second-largest ratings for any non-sports program on cable (second only to High School Musical 2 – no joke). The second episode garnered comparable ratings, while the final part did even better, with 14.29 million viewers. The show drew 16 Emmy nominations – a record for The History Channel – winning six, including awards for Costner and costar Tom Berenger.
The miniseries even led to a boom in tourism among the feud’s actual locations in Kentucky, and the film’s success led History to double down on lush reenactments of historical events like this year’s big hit The Bible and the series Vikings.
The network took a fascinating chapter in the history of the American South and wove it into a compelling program. Based on the success and legacy of Hatfields & McCoys, you would think History would treat its prestige project like the jewel that it is. That’s where you’d be dead wrong. Instead, The History Channel has chosen to look a gift horse in the mouth and knock its teeth out.
This August, History will debut Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning, a reality series in which descendents of both families team up to produce Hatfield & McCoy branded moonshine whiskey. Just let that sink in.
In the July-August issue of The History Channel Magazine, Senior Historian Kim Gilmore breathlessly announces the program:
So what are the families up to today? Does the feud live on, or have the Hatfields and McCoys finally buried the hatchet?
Answers are revealed in HISTORY’s new reality series, Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning, which features direct descendants of the original clan and debuts in August. In the series, members of the families risk opening old wounds when they reluctantly agree to work together on a promising new business endeavor…a whiskey co-branded Hatfield & McCoy.
Gilmore goes on to tease us with potential episodes that sound as exciting as a corporate board meeting:
But each has a tradition of making its own “white lightning.” Can they merge their secret recipes and techniques to build a business plan that will lead to success in a highly competitive market?
Seriously, History? This is how you follow up one of your most prestigious, highly rated, critically lauded programs? What’s next? “Watch as descendants of Mary and Joseph team up with the offspring of Pontius Pilate to create the most delicious brand of Communion wine.” “Will the descendants of the Vikings and the peoples they conquered get their organic herring farm off the ground?” These two ideas are no less idiotic than Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning.
Better yet – perhaps History can fold the Hatfields & McCoys saga into some of their other typical programming. Maybe some experts can determine that the feud wasn’t really bad blood but the result of an alien invasion. Or maybe they could show us what would have happened to the land had both families mysteriously disappeared along with the rest of the human race. Or could there be proof that the Mayans or Nostradamus predicted the feud? The possibilities are endless!
You know what? The whiskey idea may be the best thing to ever happen to the Hatfields and McCoys. Perhaps it could bring them together and make them a ton of money along the way. But to turn the venture into another lame reality show does a disservice to these two proud Southern families. The Hatfields and McCoys really do deserve better than to have the hacks from History poking around in their lives. And the network’s relatively new legacy of prestige programming deserves a better follow up as well. History Channel, apparently this is why you can’t have nice things.