Art and design






Life and style








US news

World news

The 50 best TV shows of 2017: No 9 The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War.
A model of journalistic objectivity … The Vietnam War. Photograph: BBC

If television were a war, drama would be the current superpower, with reality and talent shows providing supporting firepower. Helpless against this advance, the forces of documentary huddle on a last thin strip of unsurrendered territory, starved of funding and troops, with the British fort defended by a 91-year-old general, David Attenborough.

Given this battlefield, it is heartening that this year should have seen one of the highest achievements of factual programme-making – although chastening to UK viewers that it came not from our own huge public service infrastructures, but America’s PBS.

With The Vietnam War, producers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick reached the summit of a remarkable project about America’s three defining military conflicts, following The War (2007), which told the story of 1939-45, and Burns’ The Civil War (1990).

Historical documentary has three essential elements – speakers, archive and stance – which Burns and Novick executed perfectly. They interviewed 100 living witnesses (from, crucially, both sides of the conflict), and their researchers found vivid video and stills spanning the White House (President Nixon’s reception for returned POWs) to a local TV station that invited families to record Christmas messages for troops in Vietnam. The latter footage illustrated the story of Denton W Crocker Jr, an eager American patriot killed in 1966, a fable of futile sacrifice that lies like a landmine under episodes three and four.

And, although there have been twitterings of dispute from some interested parties, impartial viewers would surely struggle to find a greater model of journalistic objectivity. The US involvement in Vietnam has often been regarded as an inexplicable folly, but Burns and Novick methodically show how it arose from American anti-communism and military-imperial arrogance, and the crossing of the bloodline beyond which it seems that losses can only be justified by risking even more.

‘The summit of a remarkable project’ … The Vietnam War.
‘The summit of a remarkable project’ … The Vietnam War. Photograph: BBC

Testimony to the directors’ thoroughness is that, while America’s direct involvement in Vietnam lasted from 1965-75, the series spans over a century and a half: from 1858, when French colonialism seeded poisons in the region, to today, when the lessons of the misadventure remain contested in US culture. While the whole series should be required viewing for any president or prime minister tempted by a foreign conquest, the final episode, The Weight of Memory, is an especially important lesson about consequence.

The BBC should be given credit for bringing this masterpiece to a British network audience, although it deserves censure for relegating it to the niche BBC Four rather than placing it in peak-time on Two, or even One. Broadcasters in the UK should also reflect hard on whether the industry here could ever now provide the production time and money necessary to make a historical series as magisterial as this.

An editorial scruple of Burns and Novick is that interviewees are captioned with the position they held during the period they are speaking about. This means that Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes and Bảo Ninh are identified in early episodes only as fighters on either side, and Neil Sheehan as a journalist. Only later are they credited with four of the greatest books on Vietnam: respectively the novels The Things They Carried, Matterhorn, The Sorrow of War, and A Bright Shining Lie.

Those books would stand on the prime shelf in any library of Vietnam history, but The Vietnam War must grace alone the video section. By modern convention, the series is categorised online as “season one” but, in the histories of Vietnam and TV, it is hard to see how this could be followed.

(Watch here)

This article titled "The 50 best TV shows of 2017: No 9 The Vietnam War" was written by Mark Lawson, for on Thursday 7 December 2017 06.00am

Television & radio

Sunday’s best TV: Call the Midwife; The Story of Us with Morgan Freeman

Call the Midwife 8pm, BBC One It’s the big freeze of 1962/63 in Poplar, with the Beatles about to… Read more

Forget Scandi: the natural home of dark drama is Wales now

A haunting BBC One series is being heralded as the latest evidence of a boom in Welsh drama and… Read more

Saturday Night Live: time for #TimesUp but sketches sell Jessica Chastain short

Sarah Sanders (Aidy Bryant) is here, and she’s explaining the border wall: “It will be paid for by… Read more

The week in radio and podcasts: Woman’s Hour; Atlanta Monster; Today

Woman’s Hour: The Menopause (Radio 4) | iPlayer Atlanta Monster | Today (Radio… Read more

Geordie Shore TV series is ‘one long advert for drinking’

As Nathan explains in the trailer for the 16th series of reality show Geordie Shore, “there’s a lot… Read more

Spiral recap: season six, episodes seven and eight – Joséphine's revenge

There’s no letup in the drama this week with Roban’s cancer diagnosis, Bakary’s death and… Read more

The reboot matrix: which 90s TV shows are ripe for a revival?

At this stage, it’s facile to point out that television has a problem with new ideas, especially… Read more

Monday’s best TV: Silent Witness; How Mad Was King George?

Silent Witness 9pm, BBC One The UK police join forces, awkwardly, with the US embassy in this… Read more

Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens review – a heady tour of earthly delights

Looking out at a miserable rectangle of urban waste, AKA my garden, I’m hoping for inspiration from… Read more

McMafia recap – series one, episode five

“You are doing this for power, the same as all of us.” - Semiyon Kleiman What is Alex’s motivation?… Read more