As worthy of admiration as his PBS projects “The Civil War,” “The War” and “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” certainly may be, Ken Burns’ 12-hour paean to the U.S.’ national parks is an act of supreme vanity, stretching so far beyond the topic’s weight as to strain and finally snap the thread of goodwill he has developed. Yes, it’s all very stately and classy, but the topic lacks the gravitas of Burns’ finer works — leaving behind a bloated study guide for students, or a leisurely diversion for those with ample time and too little exposure to nature.
Burns and collaborator Dayton Duncan clearly want “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” to yield its share of “Oklahoma” moments, in a “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand” kind of way. But it’s a tediously exhaustive history — beginning in 1851 in the Yosemite Valley, and slogging onward through 150 years or so over six consecutive nights.
Even environmentalists and conservationists might have their patience tried by the project’s scope, which, in the interest of full disclosure, caused my attention to waiver during the last couple of chapters. So if there’s a major shocker near the end of episode five, apologies in advance.
Actually, “Parks” peaks early. Night two devotes more than two hours to Teddy Roosevelt’s passion for the outdoors and naturalist John Muir, bringing to bear all the Burns staples: Lush, understated music; talented actors, reading from assorted writings; and stately narration (by Peter Coyote). It’s all gloriously shot, of course, and evokes powerful feelings of Americana.
There’s a strong impulse not to complain, since Burns’ reverent approach to the documentary form — lacking bells and whistles like dramatic recreations so widely used elsewhere — represents a throwback to better days. Besides, this is the sort of production likely to appeal to an older audience (if anybody) that’s underserved by much of what’s in primetime. Burns’ pedigree clearly helps attract corporate sponsorships and viewers, which doubtless explains why public TV would let him do eight hours waxing eloquent about soda crackers if the mood struck him.
The bottom line, though, is that the subject matter could charitably have been chronicled in half the time. As a consequence, “National Parks” simply feels too imbued with itself — infused with a hard-to-escape sense of self-indulgence.
“When I think of a grove of giant Sequoia, I think of a cathedral, or a church,” a park ranger rhapsodizes as the camera pans up one of the majestic trees in the opening installment.
People also tend to fall asleep in church. And unless you’re looking for help with that, “The National Parks” in its present, sprawling form is, finally, a good idea gone bad.