Ken Burns’ documentaries for PBS are probably one of television’s finest institutions. Well detailed, impeccably edited and containing outstanding voice acting, these are easily some of the best nonfiction programs in television history. However, every once in a while there is a misstep on Burns’ part, and many complain that his works are too long and repetitive. With The Dust Bowl, I for once find myself in the latter camp. Trying to take on a subject that is just ill suited for his style, this is Ken Burns’ worst effort to date.
The Dust Bowl follows one of the worst environmental disasters in American history and the culture it (as well as the Great Depression) caused. The documentary miniseries takes a look at its subject through journals, pictures and (in a rarity for a Ken Burns documentary) firsthand account interviews. The documentary miniseries is directed by Ken Burns and written by frequent collaborator Dayton Duncan.
Burns and Duncan are able to bring in a vast variety of material into this topic. They bring in the usual photographs and journal readings, but they are also able to include firsthand account interviews (many of which are either extremely insightful or really gives you a humanistic picture to put over one of the darkest times in our countries history) and videos (which end up giving a bit of fresh air to Burns’ style, which normally never includes videos). Despite this the documentary miniseries ends up failing. It turns out that the Dust Bowl is just a subject that is ill-suited to the Ken Burns style. While Burns is more interested in the what’s and how’s, a normal viewer is probably more interested in the why surrounding the Dust Bowl. The program does try to answer the why but only in the context of the present day thinking at the time of the Dust Bowl, which was not enough to satisfy this viewer. This results in very repetitive accounts of peoples’ experiences during the Dust Bowl instead of an informative look into the actual Dust Bowl.
Another disappointment in this program is the shallow roster of voice actors. Peter Coyote returns as the narrator, which is great because the collaboration between Burns and Coyote is now just as important as Burns’ iconic visual style. Other than Coyote though there is only Patricia Clarkson in terms of recognizable names. Not to beat on Clarkson (who does solid voice work), but it is a shame Burns wasn’t able to get his usual roster of A-listers (like Tom Hanks).
The Dust Bowl will definitely end up as one of Ken Burns’ least memorable efforts.