Ken Burns Ruins the Roosevelts | Documentarian Ken Burns Ruins Yet Another Great American Subject with The Roosevelts

TV Reviews: Sept. 10-16, 2014

Teddy Roosevelt at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo.

Ken Burns, PBS’s favorite documentarian, has long specialized in taking the fun out of great American subjects (jazz, baseball, Mark Twain). His latest, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (Sunday, 7 p.m.), is less a tribute to President Teddy Roosevelt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt than to Burns himself. Why else would he make the damn thing 14 hours long? The series is a showcase of Burns-ian mannerisms: the slow, sonorous, sentimental narration; the labored treatment of black-and-white photographs; and the hero-worshipping score.

Worst of all is Burns’ contempt for basic storytelling. If I’m watching a documentary about the Roosevelts, I want to hear the words “Spanish American War” in the first hour, and maybe even the words “New Deal” and “Nazis,” too. But God forbid Burns would get around to those subjects any time soon — you know, the stuff a general audience actually cares about. No, he’s going to concern himself with Teddy’s dad’s bowel distress after being turned down for an obscure 19th century civil service job. Or with Franklin’s grandfather’s views on horse thieves. Why rush when you’ve got another 13 hours to kill?

“He didn’t dare slow down,” a commentator says, referring to the brisk pace of Teddy Roosevelt’s life. Burns is apparently deaf to the irony here: Teddy himself would not have sat still for this interminable production.

Deliverance Creek
Saturday, 7 pm (Lifetime)

In this exceptional TV movie, executive-produced by author Nicholas Sparks, a Missouri rancher named Belle (Lauren Ambrose) stands up for herself and her children during the Civil War. Belle has more than enough conflicts in her life: Her brother fights for the South, while her sister hides slaves for the Underground Railroad. Belle is wooed by the town deputy, Nate (Wes Ramsey), as well as by a wounded Confederate soldier she’s known since childhood. Her neighbor is a cattle-rustler and a sexual predator whose banker-wife wants to foreclose on Belle’s property.

That’d be enough trouble to crush a Southern belle in an old-school Civil War drama, but Belle is no Melanie Wilkes. Ambrose makes her a formidable figure, whether aiming a rifle or hoodwinking her enemies. When Nate arrives with the intention of saving the day, Belle hisses, “I don’t need you to protect me!”

You can say that again.

American War Generals
Sunday, 7 pm (National Geographic Channel)

This project gathers 11 top generals to weigh in on the U.S. military from Vietnam to today. You might expect tight-lipped commentary from the likes of Wesley Clark, Colin Powell and David Petraeus, who have reputations and political allies to protect. But no — the generals let ‘er rip, dishing on strategic mistakes and wrong-headed commanders. Of Gen. William Westmoreland, who headed up our Southeast Asian disaster, Gen. Barry McCaffrey blurts, “He never understood Vietnam.” Of the George W. Bush administration’s approach to the Iraq War, McCaffrey adds, “I had a sense of hatred for what Secretary Rumsfeld, in particular, did.”

American War Generals is such a departure from standard military PR that you feel almost insubordinate for enjoying it.

Boardwalk Empire
Sunday, 8 pm (HBO)

In its final season, the drama about Prohibition-era bootlegging still has no idea how to tell a good tale. As usual, this week’s episode features mobsters sitting around and talking about boring business deals while tinny Jazz Age music plays in the background. The characters are wafer-thin, including protagonist Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who’s neither sympathetic nor fascinatingly vile.

Among many bad actors, the worst is Stephen Graham, who turns Al Capone into a cartoon crime boss given to guffawing at his every dumb joke. How inept do you have to be to overplay a goon like Al Capone?

Lauren Bacall Marathon
Monday, 7 pm (TCM)

After Lauren Bacall died last month, everybody focused on her famous come-on to Humphrey Bogart’s character in To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” I love that scene as much as anyone, but it shouldn’t obscure Bacall’s other great roles — and don’t you dare believe those obituaries that slighted the rest of her career. TCM’s daylong marathon will show her to good effect in The Big Sleep, How to Marry a Millionaire and Harper. Then there’s the criminally underrated Young Man With a Horn, in which she creates one of the most complex femme fatales in screen history: the self-destructive student who ensnares Kirk Douglas’ naïve trumpet player.

This marathon will have me whistling for 24 hours straight.