Try making a documentary without footage. That’s always been the bane of the filmmaker covering a historical period that predates motion pictures. Ken Burns offered a nifty solution with his patented panning and zooming of old photographs in “The Civil War” and other series.
The eight-part series “The Ultimate Guide to the Presidents” (8 p.m., History) takes the use of period illustration and two-dimensional renderings to new, overcaffeinated extremes. “Presidents” opens with a thundering score that sounds a bit like the theme to “Game of Thrones.” We see re-enactments of cannons firing, soldiers shooting and other macho stuff. Dudes, this ain’t history for sissies!
Once it settles down to discussing the presidents, one administration at a time, “Presidents” makes an almost manic use of old imagery, conflating them into mini dioramas accompanied by loud, bombastic, faux Wagnerian music reminiscent of vintage “NFL Highlights” scores. It’s as if their purpose is to keep viewers awake during all that dry academic stuff.
‘‘Presidents” deserves credit for inviting a wide range of scholars and historians to discuss each chief executive. At times, the PBS folks seem intent on convincing us there are four working historians in America: Michael Beschloss, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and a player to be named later. “Presidents” expands upon this monopoly and has found some genuinely telegenic talking heads. One expert from the University of Texas has movie-star good looks, and a historian from Yale is dynamic and attractive. We history nerds don’t need much to keep us interested, History Channel. You can turn down the volume!
‘‘The Ultimate Guide to the Presidents” will air at 8 nightly through Friday.
Tonight’s other highlights:
• “Pioneers of Television” (7 p.m., PBS) profiles female comedians, from Phyllis Diller to Tina Fey.
• The stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe intersect on “The Abolitionists: American Experience” (8 p.m., PBS).
• Mindy hosts a demanding sleepover guest on “The Mindy Project” (8:30 p.m., Fox).
• Joel and Julia mull their options on “Parenthood” (9 p.m., NBC).
• “Africa” (9 p.m., Discovery, TV-G) explores the continent’s savannah region, rich in exotic wildlife.