TV Show Asks: 'When Is Something a Classic?' ; Popular Culture Pundits Reexamine America's Icons

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In our throwaway culture, it's not always easy to see how enduring some things are. Some would call them "the classics," icons of history that pass the test of time and are passed down from one generation to the next.

The History Channel takes on Madison Avenue's approach to the question "What is a classic?" in its newest series on life in the United States, "American Classics."

The four-hour miniseries (Nov. 27-30, 9-10 p.m.) starts with the goal of identifying those cultural totems that best represent America and why they've become a part of our collective consciousness.

The show's producers began with a litmus test for classic status. "Sometimes it's a function of ubiquity," says historian Karal Ann Marling. She relates her own experience with a group of French tourists who were exploring the Mississippi River.

"Every time we stopped at any little museum," she says, "they'd show us a little film. And every time they were trying to denote the 1950s or '60s in this film, there would be Elvis."

By the end of the fourth day on the road, she says, her French travelers would start the day by saying, " 'Give us this day our daily Elvis.' The notion that Elvis is everywhere was not wasted on them. He clearly was a kind of American place marker, and an American icon."

The producers were also interested in tracing the iconic image back to its human roots. "It takes real people, real events," says consultant and historian Steven Gillon. "It takes people like Elvis Presley, George Washington, [and] cowboys, and shows over time that have become mythologized, how they've become something different from what they were originally."

The series investigates the contrast between the myth and the reality, and the process of mythologization.

"[The program] takes real things, but shows how we imbue them with meaning which they never had and how that becomes an important part of who we are as Americans," Mr. …