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Series premiere: Ken Burns’ The National Parks (six-night miniseries)

In television on 09/26/2009 at 10:01 am

Series name
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

Debuts
Sunday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS

Regularly airs
Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009 through Friday, Oct. 2, 2009, every night at 8-10 p.m. ET (repeating at 10 p.m. ET; also each episode will be available online the day after broadcast through Oct. 9, 2009).

Premise
Ken Burns, who’s brought us massive, and massively good documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and jazz, now looks at the United States’ national parks. In addition to clocking the history of their creation, the 12-hour, six-night The National Parks looks also at the individuals — historical and contemporary — who helped create, and also later to save, the parks.

Primary cast and crew
Ken Burns (The War, Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War) directed and co-produced.
Duncan Dayton (Mark Twain, Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip) wrote and co-produced it.
Peter Coyote is the main narrator, with readings by Tom Hanks, Andy Garcia, Josh Lucas, Eli Wallach, Campbell Scott, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, George Takei, Philip Bosco, Carolyn McCormick, Adam Arkin and Kevin Conway.

But what do I know anyway? After not having seen only the videos at pbs.org, I predict…
I predict without a shadow of a doubt that — while a ridiculous time committment, at two hours a night for six consecutive nights, Sunday through Friday — this will make my heart feel good. But — and you’ll want to know that more thana couple of critics have called this series a little too stuffy and ponderous — I’m in the mood for some contemplative TV-watching. Sure, there will likely be the “America!” moments that will have me momentarily grinding my teeth, as though natural beauty and its preservation were their very own inventions (the title, by the way, comes from the great writer Wallace Stegner, whose assessment I will not challenge), but I can deal. And to see what videos on the excellent website reveal to be excellent cinematography, on top of the usual outstanding archival finds, well that will be lovely. For a sample, I give you this video snippet on Hawaii, which starts with the words of Mark Twain in 1866, with contemporary footage: amazing to think that his words then still gorgeously, accurately describe peering into the fiery stops in what would become Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Amazing. And if six consecutive nights seems as daunting to you (and if the prospect of filling up the DVR with this series is as implausable to you during this crazy busy TV-watching season), remember that the series will also be online, but only until Oct. 9, and will be out on DVD Oct. 6.  My quibbles? Why six consecutive nights? More to the point, why September? Why not wait for later fall months when there are not dozens of shows premiering and returning for new seasons?

Other reviews
The New York Times’ Mike Hale says many will love this series, but says it’s a bit heady for his tastes, that the cinematography on Discovery channel is far superior than what we’ll find here and points out the almost complete absence of images of people actually using the parks. “It’s a brilliantly assembled and rigidly controlled artifact, voice after voice ringing small variations on a few themes (democratic ideals, American rootlessness, the rapaciousness of the white man). Along with the folksy music, it can have the effect, over 12 hours at a steady, unmodulated pace, of sucking the juice out of history, of embalming it rather than bringing it to life.” Interesting.

Levi Novey at the Huffington Post says if you watch only one episode, make it Wednesday’s, which covers the arrival of car travel and one couple’s pilgrimage via car and train through many parks.

But, from the glowingly positive side of the ledger, is Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, who says you’re going to love it.

Official website
Video, photos, teaching guides… Full deal, nicely done.

Twitter
Mostly promo about the start date, but also putting out invitations to get involved: Got a story to share?

Facebook
Links to recent interviews, including Burns visit to the Colbert Report, reminders to tune in, some other interesting conversations, and excerpts (one ranger saying he hopes for nothing more than to see Snoop Dogg around a campfire).

Wondering when the other new series and returning series are kicking off?
Click here for my select list of fall 2009 premieres and other important dates. Who am I to tell you what to do, but you could consider bookmarking it…

— Denise Duguay

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