Nov 30, 2016

Channel Surfing: Drunk History - "Hamilton"

Scene from Drunk History
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
Speaking as Comedy Central has made a habit of making series around satires of every dramatic art form, it only makes sense that one of their flagship series is Drunk History. The series has a simple motive. It wants historians to tell a piece of history while getting increasingly plastered. As one can assume this would lead to slurring, casually forgetting facts, or just losing the pretentiousness that comes with that career. Add in "dramatic reenactments" that ape the historian's accounts and you get the gist of the show. Now four seasons in, it still is a surprise that they landed one of the most acclaimed pop culture icons to share his story. With an Emmy, Grammy, and Tony (though Moana assures us an Oscar isn't far behind), Lin-Manuel Miranda's collaboration was always going to be a deal. However, it's still fascinating to see him tell the story that he's told countless times on stage in Hamilton! after he's had a few.
The broad strokes of the story don't change. Alexander Hamilton still immigrates to America after struggles and a middling job. With exception to the detail of his ship being on fire, the half hour episode is a comical retelling of Hamilton!, albeit with a Questlove phone call in the middle and Miranda going on about his high school years. Of course, part of Miranda's appeal is that he's always seemed like an eager and passionate man who is engaged with whatever's going on at the moment. Even as his eyes turn red and he becomes giggly, he is a delight to watch as he tries to not only recall the story he's made into a three hour stage experience, but make it streamlined enough that the show doesn't run long. It could be done, but Miranda probably would've blacked out had there been too much longer.
How funny you find Miranda's plastered state is up for interpretation. Even then, he managed to play to the best of Drunk History's intents. With casual swearing and sound effects, he brought Hamilton to life on a level that is primitive and likely something that the less theater-inclined fans will enjoy. He is coherent enough to tell the entire story while also being prone to sidetracking. Like the best of historians, his familiarity with the subject matter leads to a comfort to make shorthand phrases and references that would seem absurd. Even after years of been steeped in Hamilton culture, Miranda still manages to get emotional about the text that made him famous. The concluding portion deals with the Hamilton/Aaron Burr gunfight, which leads to a passionate plea from Miranda about its symbolism of their legacies. By the end, you understand why he made a musical about this material. 
For many, this will likely be the only Drunk History episode that they see. The show is pretty peculiar as it is, especially as a satire of History Channel programming. The reenactments are themselves very comical and full of familiar actors miming along with their prompts. As Miranda compares some salacious letters to Penthouse, the camera technique in the reenactments become erotic, playing up the sexual atmosphere that is itself undermined by a drunk historian failing to sound entirely eloquent. The joke becomes subversive, especially as there's truth within the slurs. Even then, it seems like an odd thing to make well produced and edited comedy for.
Drunk History is a show that could use more voices like Miranda: someone who is highly popular and enthusiastic, but still willing for potential humiliation. While they have managed to find several voices over the few years, it doesn't seem likely that we will get to see the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin recalling Abraham Lincoln's life while intoxicated. In that way, the show is rarely successful at transcending the zeitgeist, and that is what makes this episode defining of their legacy. There may be better episodes, but none will be as symbolic of their intents as this one. Of course, there are few personalities right now as endearing as Miranda. With that said, he's going to have one of the most fascinating resumes if he keeps doing shows like this. I'm not opposed to it.

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