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TV Weekend: Ken Burns' National Parks

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The Grand Canyon. / PBS

The Grand Canyon. / PBS

Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea begins its nightly run (twelve hours, in six parts) on PBS Sunday night. Last week, I wrote a column about how its premise—that Big Government saved wilderness and national treasures that private enterprise would have destroyed—is a lot more politically pointed (in the year of the Tea Party) than you’d expect from a Burns documentary about trees. But is it a good miniseries?

It is. For three or four hours. After that, despite all the gorgeous scenery, your feet may start itchin’ to wander.

The first ten minutes or so of the documentary are visually amazing. You may want to tune out the purple Burns / Dayton Duncan prose about nature and the meaning of America in Peter Coyote’s narration. But over that comes one spectacular money shot after another—not pans of sepia photographs, but glaciers and glopping lava flows and glittering stalactites and bison trudging through snow drifts. It is enough to give a nature lover a petrified woodie.

I had to wonder, watching all this gorgeously shot nature porn, whether the goal of National Parks wasn’t in part to give PBS its own answer to Discovery’s Planet Earth, the amazing nature miniseries whose staggering footage stole public TV’s thunder and was a critical and commercial hit. In this, National Parks can’t quite compete—it has a limited choice of subjects, for starters, whereas Planet Earth had, well, Earth. But it is an arresting departure from Burns’ familiar style of archival filmmaking.

After the opening sequence, the series shifts into more familiar Burns mode, as it goes back to the mid-19th century to describe the struggles of conservationists to establish parks—especially the naturalist / holy ecstatic John Muir, whose rapt prose drives much of the early part of the documentary. The struggle to set aside the likes of Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon—so they wouldn’t be despoiled like Niagara Falls quickly was—ends up being a microcosm of many political fights in American history.

Local prerogatives run up against federal power, private interests against public concerns, business against government, the right of individuals versus those of the collective nation. It’s not just about environmentalists fighting developers, but, for instance, the question of whether saving a gorgeous canyon outweighs damming a river to provide water to a growing city.

It’s an interesting story of American priorities and the role of government, and over the history of the parks it would play out over and over. And over. And over. Which is where a problem develops.

It is the cheapest, most predictable criticism, I know, to talk about a Burns documentary being too long, and hardcore Burns lovers probably don’t care anyway. But while Burns weaves in other themes—telling the stories, for instance, of Americans who fell in love with the parks, and explaining the evolving philosophy of protecting wildlife diversity and not just pretty views—after the first two nights, The National Parks seems weighed down by similar examples. Here’s how the Everglades became a national park! And Acadia! And Kilauea! And so forth.

In addition to his epic films, Burns has made shorter (for him—say, four hour) documentaries on subjects like the women’s sufferage suffrage movement and the boxer Jack Johnson, which were no lesser for being more concise. The National Parks feels like it might better have been one of those, maybe specifically focused on the causes and passion of John Muir. By the third night and beyond, we’re spending several-minute segments on people collecting national-park stamps in passbooks. And many sections seem like leftover material from other Burns documentaries, like stories from World War II (one, for instance, involving Japanese interment camps) that may be worthy but have only a tenuous connection to the parks story.

The good thing about this is that The National Parks, more so than past Burns documentaries, is well-suited to dipping in and out. If you’re interested, I’d suggest checking out the first and second nights and then seeing where you want to go from there. Like the parks system itself, Parks is sprawling and often gorgeous. But don’t feel obligated to collect every stamp.

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