World War II was an immensely popular military program, airing in syndication on a medley of channels throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. Despite running for only seven seasons, it remains one of the most referenced and re-run shows of all time, as well as one of very few examples of a show successfully switching genres in mid-run. It is often heralded as television's first breakthrough hit, spawning more remakes and spin-offs than any other show in history. To this day, repeat showings still comprise the majority of The History Channel's offerings.
World War II was the brainchild of President FDR. Even after his unprecedented third consecutive triumph on Campaign!, America continued to be mired in the aftereffects of the Great Depression. The American people were openly pining for earlier times, consuming nostalgic fare such as I Love the '20s and embracing the neo-flapper movement.
Eager to entertain the masses and divert them from the harsh realities of the present existence, President FDR devised a television show that would resonate with these sentiments. Billed as a notional sequel "in a whole new medium!" to the popular newspaper accounts and radio program updates of decades-past World War I, this show was to be World War II.
Recap of SeasonsEdit
Seasons One and Two: That Wacky Hitler!Edit
The first seasons of World War II had the show branded as a slapstick comedy, intended to be broadly appealing to the lowest common denominator. Set in Germany, the show revolved around the antics of fictional leader Adolf Hitler (Charlie Chaplin) and his talking pet turkey named Goebbels.
The show, while of high production value, was largely formulaic. In each episode, Hitler would approach the leader of an adjoining country, asking if good sir would not mind parting with a hectare of land for which he would gladly repay them Tuesday. Invariably, said leader would refuse; hijinks would ensue, and by episode's end, Hitler would proudly cluck about the exciting new swatch of land he now had control over.
While not garnering any appreciable critical acclaim, the show did have the populist appeal that President FDR was seeking. The show was watched widely by American audiences, with Goebbels' trademark catchphrase "we gobble-gobble-gobbled the country up!" heard echoing on playgrounds the nation over.
Ratings began to suffer during the third season of World War II as a fickle public tired of Hitler's repetitive antics being trotted out against a series of leaders from increasingly nondescript countries. Sensing that the show would likely meet with swift cancellation before season's end were changes not made, President FDR did the unthinkable, radically altering the show's very format into an hour-long action-packed drama. In the newly-revised World War II, the focus would no longer be exclusively on Hitler's zany exploits; formerly little more than bit parts and props, other countries' lands and leaders would also enter the fray.
Hitler was joined by an Italian "little brother" sidekick Benito Mussolini (Roberto Benigni) and a wacky Japanese associate known only as Tojo (Toshiro Mifune). They liked to get together to kick asses and raise hell, referring to themselves as The Axis of Evil. Meanwhile, forming The Axis of Evil's adversaries were a group known as the Coalition of the Allied, comprised of Great Britain's Winston Churchill (Peter Sellers), France's Charles de Gaulle (Jean Reno), and the United States' President FDR (Dwight Eisenhower), plus occasional guest appearances from the surly commie boozehound Joseph Stalin (Peter Stormare). The retooled show would focus on the exploits of these world leaders and their nations' soldiers as they strategized, sparred over natural resources, fought to preserve shipping channels, and otherwise found reasons to blow the holy living hell out of one another.
With these changes, World War II became more popular than ever before. The show was widely acclaimed, praised for both offering something to all corners and seamlessly integrating those aspects into a single, tightly-written story arc. Armchair military strategists loved trying to predict how armies were going to outflank each other each week; drama fans raved over the countless tear-jerking moments caused by lost troop mates and leaders' inspirational speeches. Even supporters of the more slapstick-oriented first seasons tended to remain tuned in, transfixed by the high-caliber special effects used in aerial dogfights and artillery blasts. The show was an unqualified success, eagerly anticipated each week by an entertainment-starved nation.
Seasons Five and Six: The DeclineEdit
While World War II was a smash hit, meeting with such roaring success did have its costs. Not wishing to miss out on any of the show's potential, President FDR insisted that the airwaves be virtually saturated with new episodes, pushing for two and then three new tapings per week for upwards of 40 weeks per year. Such a grueling schedule proved wearying, adversely affecting both the cast and crew.
The writing team arguably suffered the worst for such a decision. Already struggling to keep track of so many meandering storylines, simply meeting the breakneck schedule caused quality to deteriorate rapidly. Adjacent scenes would take place on opposite sides of the world, involving countries and armies wholly independent from one another. Frequent use of improbable plots like "Hitler makes an improbably poor strategic decision" smacked of laziness and were criticized widely. During especially desperate times, whole scenes were recycled wholesale with minor dialogue edits; the recurring "winters in Russia sure are tough" and "it's tough to figure out these newfangled rockets" subplots were the most prominent abusers of this approach.
Not even the typically unflappable editing team managed to escape unfazed. During Season Six's episode "Iwo Jima", many viewers claimed to see an extra leg present in the climactic top-of-the-hill scene; those with TiVo easily verified as much.
Benigni, already a touch wobbly from having put on 30 pounds for the Mussolini role, collapsed from fatigue several times during the fifth season. The second collapse prompted a bout of hasty rewriting, taxing an already overworked staff to quietly ignore Italy while highlighting Stalin and bringing a previously unseen Australian team into the mix. Meanwhile, Chaplin began to consider himself vastly underpaid for his talents, considering Adolf Hitler to be a lynchpin character without whom the series could not continue. Reportedly, filming was delayed as he threatened to leave the set entirely unless contract renegotiations resumed.
All this came to a head during the final episode of the sixth season on V-E Day - Very-Exciting Day, a rudimentary version of sweeps. In a stunning turn of events, both the Hitler and Mussolini characters were killed off, effectively writing both Chaplin and Benigni out of the plot entirely. This episode of World War II remains the highest-rated program ever shown on television to this day.
Season Seven: The Grand FinaleEdit
With the excising of both Hitler and Mussolini from the scripts, the writing staff had generally assumed that the sixth season of World War II would be its last. However, President FDR, still desperate for ratings, made a rare live cameo on Congress and successfully secured the funds for a single additional season. The writers, desperate to conclude the waning series with a bang, used the newly-acquired funds to commence with a super-secretive special effects endeavor known only as The Manhattan Project.
The Manhattan Project involved the brave new world of computer imagery. A series of sixteen dozen steam-powered Babbage Difference Engines (provided free of charge by the ENIAC corporation) were built in the deserts of New Mexico, operated by a team of coal-shovelers subsisting on little more than an ample reservoir of Manhattan clam chowder. Day and night, the team worked, for months on end, until a pair of effects were finally finished. Codenamed Fat Man and Jake, the effects were loaded onto famed shipping truck Enola Gay and driven off to the World War II Hollywood studios.
Unleashed on V-J Day - Vitamin Juice Day, a since discontinued corporate-sponsored variant of V-E Day - the awe-inspiring special effects were deployed successfully during the capping off the series finale. Folks reported being blown away by said effects, as if suffering from the mind-altering effects of hallucinogenic fungi. Wary of causing such mushroom cloud brains amongst the populace in the future, the U.S. government promptly put a halt to their use. No other Difference Engine generated graphics have since been employed during a series, finale episode or otherwise.
Remakes and Spin-OffsEdit
- The Cold War - Deftly re-casting the Communists in the role of The Bad Guys, this spin-out not only ran several times as long as its mother program, but spun out simultaneously running programs of its own with Korean War, The Army-McCarthy Hearings and Vietnam War, to say nothing of ancillary fare like Combat! and the The Cuban Missile Crisis mini-series.
- Band of Brothers - Five jammin' brothers fight both the Nazi menace and Stan's lack of percussive ability.
- Iron Chef America - First introduced by script writers during Season Four, this cooking contest show-within-a-show became a standalone smash hit.
- V - Evil space lizards reprise the role of the Third Reich. Hilarity ensues.