'Hatfields and McCoys': Is History Channel miniseries fact or fiction?
The family feud between the Hatfields and McCoys is brought to life in a new History Channel series. But history and folk legend blur as the show follows the lead of cable TV's more mature fare.
Mark Webb/The Herald-Dispatch/AP
There is something about portraying grimy menÂ shooting one another in the woods that speaks to many actors of a certain, letâ€™s say, experience.
The History Channelâ€™s â€śHatfields and McCoys,â€ť a six-hour miniseries about the 19th-century folk legend, airing on the basic cable channel through Wednesday night, is chock full of some of Hollywoodâ€™s top frontier-lovinâ€™ hombres.Â Star Kevin Costner won an Oscar for his Civil-War-era â€śDances with Wolves,â€ť and Powers Booth may have set a high-water mark for portraying grittyÂ outlaw life in HBOâ€™s "Deadwood.â€ť
But this is not a feature film or even HBO. This is the History Channel debuting its first scripted series, coming out of the gate with the somewhat lofty goal of illuminating some of historyâ€™s lesser-known corners. WhileÂ most Americans may know the reference to the 19th-century Appalachian blood feud, few know more than the gun-toting, cartoonÂ cowboy characters who shoot at each other and miss.
And so, this largely unfamiliar but profoundly foul-mouthed, violent depiction of frontier justice and family revenge may be just the ticket for a channel trying to shed its somewhat stuffy legacy, says Josh McMullen, chairman of the Government, History, and Criminal Justice Department at Regent University's School of Undergraduate Studies.
â€śThe History Channelâ€™s 'Hatfields and McCoys' is in keeping with the station's recent trajectory towards popular culture rather than rich, historical analysis,â€ť he says via e-mail, adding that much of the programming on the channel â€“ such as â€śAmerican Pickers"Â and â€śPawn Stars" â€“ is â€śmore akin to reality television than it is to a historical documentary.â€ť
These shows focus on Americana as much as they do on American history, notes Professor McMullen. The History Channelâ€™s "Hatfields and McCoys" continues the theme, as it has been a long-standing American folk legend, he adds.
As with any program trying to separate the threads of a little-documented historical period, he says, the difficulty is separating fact from fiction when discussing the famous feud. One major problem anyone faces in attempting to explore historyâ€™s overlooked, disenfranchised, or maligned is that often these are individuals with little desire â€“ or little capacity â€“ to tell their own stories. â€śThese were not regions of the country where people were keeping careful track of their own stories,â€ť says Thomas Flagel, a historian at Columbia State Community College in Franklin, Tenn., and author ofÂ â€śThe History Buffâ€™s guide to the Civil War.â€ť
Many participants in this story lived in isolated areas where it would be difficult to trace events accurately, he says. This was not helped by the yellow journalism of the time. If theÂ sketchy events emerging from news accounts as the bodies piled up were not sensational enough, he adds, â€śnewspapers of the day often had no problem with simply making things up.â€ť
Nonetheless, the show's producers were at pains to point out in press materials that while not actually filmed in Appalachia â€“ the incentives are better in Romania, where it was shot â€“ the miniseries â€śtries to capture accurately details of the family fight that eventually involved the US Supreme Court, made international headlines, and nearly pushed Kentucky and West Virginia to the brink of war.â€ť
Historians and educators were also brought in to vet the story, according to the show's producers, though writers â€śtook such traditional liberties as compressing characters and the timing of events.â€ť
How far is too far often depends on whose views are offended, says Bob Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. He points to the ruckus raised over recent programs such as â€śGame Change,â€ť about the 2008 election, noting that criticism often had as much to do with politics as history. Beyond that, â€śdrama has no obligation to be historically accurate,â€ť he says with a laugh, pointing to such august precedents as Shakespeareâ€™s history plays.
But, notes McMullen, the miniseries also raises larger questions for the History Channel itself. Does the show do justice to its historical claims, he says, â€śor is it simply content to entertain its viewers?â€ť he asks. With other cable television shows such asÂ â€śGame of Thronesâ€ť and â€śTrue Bloodâ€ť pushing the envelope in terms of sex and blood, he says, â€śit appears that the History Channel is simply following suit.â€ť
The question is, he says, â€śwhether or not the History Channel has a different mission than an HBO or Showtime.â€ť As the Hatfields and McCoys slug it out on the station, â€śperhaps the History Channel needs to have some of its own internal feuding over its identity.â€ť