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HOW THE STATES GOT THEIR SHAPES
Season One

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Brian Unger
Director:   David Konschink
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Color
Studio:  A&E Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  Seven hours plus extras on four discs
Release Date:  November 1, 2011

“In the early days every miner carried him a short chain, which he would place under the wheel (of the bathroom cart, in the dark).  And if heard it move he would jump off. You know that phrase don’t yank my chain?  This is where it came from (the mines of Colorado).”  Mining was tougher in Colorado than in California…

Film ***1/2

Many viewers know Brian Unger from The Daily Show and he brings his sly manner into an unusual series that looks at why some American states are shaped like boxes, and others are shaped like…well, nothing in particular! He often focuses on the weird notches and irregularities in so many states that cannot be explained merely by geographical formations like rivers or mountains.  There are usually some very interesting tales in the smallest corners of our states.

Most of us had to learn history and geography in school but teachers rarely had the time to weave them together in an interesting way as Unger does in this excellent series.  We learn about the logistical challenges of measuring the vast American landscape, and many of the common traits of many states, but Unger often ties the history into modern trends as well.

I won’t give away too many of his insights, but one of them is pretty important in the next presidential election.  Before air conditioning, most southern states (east and west) had sparse populations.  Dealing with heat and insects kept many folks from relocating to these places permanently.  Florida for example was the least populated state in the Southeast some sixty years ago, but today it is the most populated state.  Texas, Arizona, and other southern states have also seen steady population growth while northeastern states and California lose people every year.  This is usually good for one party and usually bad for the other.   In this way, air conditioning has affected congressional elections and the electoral college.  Karl Rove and other political commentators have pointed out that President Obama will have a different electoral total if he wins the same states in 2012 that he did in 2008 as a result of the 2010 census.  

Unger sometimes digresses for many minutes into stories involving sports rivalries and other miscellany that don’t seem very important but almost always gives the viewer a good “a-HA!” moment in which we learn how that obscure fact changed the state’s shape.  You will also see many states that only existed on maps and others that were absorbed into bigger states such as the State of Franklin, which merged into Tennessee. 

Border States often have the strangest situations, such as having to use a passport just to cross a street in Maine.  The slave trade also affected our once diamond-shaped Nation’s Capital.  Since the slave trade was distasteful, the portion of Washington DC where it occurred was pushed out, rendering the diamond shaped capital many miles smaller on the Virginia side.  In one of the most insightful moments of the series, we learn that the fate of a slave being sold in Alexandria, Virginia to a plantation owner in the Deep South led to a long river voyage and an even worse life in the Delta, thus the negative connotations of “being sold down the river.”

I found the episodes about South Carolina, Texas, and North Dakota to be especially interesting.  I finally know why there are two Carolinas, and heard for the first time that Texas could have been many different states.  Most of us know that the entire Southwest was part of Mexico, and Floridians know that the state once extended farther west but that we gave up pieces to Alabama and Mississippi so that they could have ports, but I knew practically nothing about the Great Lakes area and how trade affected state shapes. 

Unger often asks people on the street to answer basic geography questions and it is embarrassing how ignorant most of us are, but he does not ever claim to be an expert himself, either.  Instead he finds local experts who provide native insight.  This is a refreshing approach and avoids the parade of transplanted Ph.D.’s we see on so many other networks.  It makes the viewer feel like they are on a journey with him and gives the series a folksy, even more American feeling.

Audio ***

Only regular stereo, but the mix is fully serviceable.

Video ***

Full color letterbox is great, and it should be noted that the discs are well-indexed, in that you can not just choose the episode but also choose the chapter within the episode, which is unusual for documentaries.

Features ****

The “special” episode is one of the best episodes of the collection, and while it is not identified as such I think this was the original two hour special previously released on DVD. This episode has some of the best information and trivia, including highlights of how the original North American territories became our nation.  The only drawback is that it jumps from one topic to another too suddenly, which I noticed when I saw it on television.  It is well worth seeing, but viewers will probably find the other episodes are better organized. 

Summary:

The History Channel is known for making history fun, and now they have made geography interesting as well.  And not just for people who have Illinois licenses and Missouri zip codes at the same time. 

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