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Burns documentary fits PBS perfectly

'Dust Bowl' taps real-world resonance of core values

A devastating economic downturn. Widespread government assistance. Financial hucksters. And an ecological disaster fueled by man-made factors.

Filmmaker Ken Burns has always had a knack for finding the real-world resonance in his historical documentaries, including “Prohibition” and his great, exhausting war epics, “The Civil War” and “The War” (about World War II). Yet there’s perhaps an extra measure of relevance to “The Dust Bowl” — a two-night, four-hour production for PBS, chronicling the weather patterns and misguided farming techniques that, coupled with the Depression, turned a vast swath of America into a virtual wasteland.

For conservatives, the inevitable attention any Burns doc generates — coming on the heels of President Obama’s reelection — might feel like a dusting of salt in an open wound.

“Dust Bowl” takes on an additional dimension when viewed in the context of PBS, given longstanding efforts by conservatives to de-fund public television. GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney explicitly stated those aims during one of the presidential debates, which led to a predictable counter-argument that accused Republicans of a misguided assault on Big Bird.

While “Dust Bowl” is easy enough to appreciate on its own merits, its broader messages are unavoidable. This was a time when wide-scale welfare from the federal government was desperately needed. Moreover, there’s a cautionary warning about greedily strip-mining the land, which dovetails with environmental and climate-change concerns fueled by ever-more-destructive storms, most recently hurricane Sandy.

A more subtle aspect of “Dust Bowl,” though, has to do with its demographics, and indeed, those of PBS.

After all, the service has earned an understandable reputation for being old and somewhat stodgy. It’s not twentysomethings, for the most part, who watch British costume dramas — even something as popular as “Downton Abbey” — or news and public affairs programming like “The Newshour” and “Frontline.” PBS actually fulfills its mandate, and reinforces the continuing need for its existence, in part by catering to audiences underserved and overlooked by commercial broadcasters — including young children and senior citizens, groups that both fall outside advertisers’ young-adult demo sweet spot.

At the same time, those very older demos voted heavily for Romney, while the younger population grows more diverse.

The irony that emerges while watching “The Dust Bowl” is that the witnesses interviewed — people presumably in their 80s and 90s — testify to how they benefited back then from the government’s intervention. Nevertheless, a majority of their peers supported the candidate whose argument skewed more heavily toward self-reliance, including a surreptitiously shot video in which Romney said he couldn’t convince those dependent on public aid to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The debate about the proper role of government, of course, is ongoing, and won’t be settled by one election. But in terms of making a case for what government can accomplish — as opposed to the vision articulated by conservative icon Ronald Reagan — Burns’ latest effort couldn’t feel more timely or profound, including its public-TV venue.

Such projects take years to complete, and it’s not like “Dust Bowl” is being broadcast in the midst of the campaign. That said, Burns hasn’t been bashful about his personal views (he publicly endorsed Obama), and even if his lens is directed toward the past, it’s clearly with an eye toward the present and future. Besides, conservatives don’t require much prodding when it comes to getting riled up about PBS.

As with “The War,” younger viewers who watch “Dust Bowl” should find themselves once again admiring the hardships their parents and grandparents endured. The deeply rooted lessons associated with that history, however, are hardly just dust in the wind.

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