TV Talk: History Channel revisits Johnstown Flood; Cold “Severance” explores work-life balance

Mixing talking-head historians with dramatic recreations, the George Stephanopoulos (“Good Morning America”) executive produces the new History Channel series “I Was There,” which kicks off Sunday at 10:30 p.m. and airs an episode on Johnstown Flood Monday at 10:30 p.m.

While this hybrid interview/dramatization style has become commonplace on the History Channel, “I Was There” stands out with scenes featuring host Theo EJ Wilson appearing alongside actors in the dramatic recreations (get it , he was here!). The show is also distinguished by a welcome lack of bloat: effective 30-minute episodes are enough to share the selected stories.

Dramatic scenes offer a mix of actors on hands-on sets, in the field, and in CGI work. Other historical events featured include the Hindenburg disaster, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and the 1965 Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

In a phone interview last week, Wilson said the episodes, including “Johnstown Flood: America’s Deadliest Flood,” were largely filmed around Minneapolis, home to the show’s production company, Committee Films.

“There’s so much to learn, especially around class issues that the episode really delves into exploring, and how persistent that is, and how important it was for us to come up with labor regulations, laws and limits on operating businesses and accountability measures put in place,” said Wilson, the grandson of an Airman from Tuskegee. “Johnstown has been a big part of our evolution of the culture of responsibility towards the powerful.”

The story of the Johnstown Flood – with the wealthy enjoying their time on Lake Conemaugh above Johnstown and their failure to maintain the dam which led to the 1889 flood which swept away 2,200 workmen and their families in Johnstown below – has resonance today given lingering concerns about income inequality.

“It’s interesting how this persists into the modern era,” Wilson said. “We understand that as the quality of life increases, so does the standard of living for everyone who would be called the lower class. But this does not prevent the stratification of wealth. It’s easy to place Johnstown in a bygone era if you only discuss it on the surface. But history is relevant to the present, which is why we are interested in it. The parallels that can be drawn by looking at Johnstown with this modern era elucidate some of the dangers we still face.

The episode hints at the potential of the Johnstown Flood story for a drama or limited series (the 1926 silent film “Johnstown Flood” is quite dated at this point). In 2002, Pittsburgh native and director John Harrison (Syfy’s “Dune” miniseries) had a four-hour miniseries, based on Pittsburgh native David McCullough’s 1968 book about the flood, in development at ABC, but the project was abandoned a few years later.

‘Break’

Apple TV+’s latest entry, chill drama “Severance,” airing Friday, has a look that’s “Homecoming” meets “Loki” with some Kafkaesque vibes thrown in for good measure.

It’s an odd but not unwelcome arrival that offers an unorthodox take on work-life balance. In this parallel present, office workers can choose to have their work life “separate” from their life outside of work so that when they are in the office they have no knowledge of their life outside of work. and when they are at home, they have no memory of work.

After the death of his wife, Mark Scout (Adam Scott) chooses to undergo severance pay for his job at Lumon Industries. But questions about procedure begin to arise when Mark’s former colleague, Petey (Yul Vazquez), appears to have reversed procedure. And new recruit Helly (Britt Lower) wants out almost immediately. As a cold boss, Patricia Arquette is unfathomably weird in the best, most quietly menacing way.

Written and created by Dan Erickson with episodes directed by Ben Stiller, there’s a dark humor, absurd vibe that, alongside mysteries (What are the workers doing in Lumon? Why does Mark’s boss live next door to him? ?), makes “Severance” appealing. But some of that interest is nullified by overly long episodes and a frenetic pace.

Sandra Oh on more ‘Chair’

During a 2022 Television Critics Association virtual press tour panel earlier this month for “Killing Eve,” which premieres its fourth and final season at 8 p.m. on February 27 on BBC America and AMC+ , I asked star Sandra Oh if she had heard of the possibility of a second season of Netflix’s “The Chair,” which was filmed in Pittsburgh a year ago.

“Ask them because no one called me,” Oh said. “And I would have really loved to do that.”

A Netflix publicist has not provided any updates on whether or not the show, announced as a limited series, will be back for more episodes.

‘Tuna’ on WTAE-TV

“Thon – 50 Years for the Kids,” a 30-minute celebration of Penn State student-run dance marathon philanthropy, airs in Pittsburgh on WTAE-TV at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Kept/cancelled

Shudder has renewed “Creepshow,” executive produced by McCandless native Greg Nicotero, for a fourth season.

HBO Max has renewed “The Gilded Age” for a second season; Hulu did the same for “How I Met Your Dad.”

Showtime has renewed “Billions” for season seven.

Paramount+ has ordered more episodes of “1883” and a spin-off, “1932.”

ABC removed the unpopular soap opera “Promised Land” from its Monday night schedule; the rest of the episodes will premiere on Hulu on March 1.

The zapping

Cable’s Ovation is launching a new 24-episode season of “Murdoch Mysteries” with episodes airing at 7 p.m. Saturdays starting February 26 and streaming on Acorn.tv Mondays starting February 28. … Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes will host the Oscars (8 p.m. March 27, ABC). …Fox is developing an animated series based on the 1980-89 “Bloom County” comic book to be co-written by comic book creator Berkeley Breathed. … ViacomCBS has renamed itself Paramount. … After winning $9,999 at the Feb. 9 premiere, Carnegie Mellon University student Kristin Donegan is in a semi-final on the show “Jeopardy!” College National Championship” Friday at 8 p.m. on WTAE-TV.

You can reach TV editor Rob Owen at [email protected] or 412-380-8559. Follow Rob on Twitter Where Facebook. Ask questions about TV via email or phone. Please include your first name and location.