Last week Ken Burns debuted his latest documentary series as The Roosevelts: An Intimate History aired over seven nights on PBS. At almost fourteen hours in length this is a gargantuan series, and while Burns is known to make long projects this is his longest since 2007’s The War. To be honest, most of Ken Burns’ works need some editing down, but never have I felt the strain in one of his works as I do with The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. While there are still many informative tidbits to be had from this project, most of it feels overlong, overdone, and ultimately a bit of a retread.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History begins quite effectively as we are introduced to the first in its Roosevelt triumvirate, Theodore Roosevelt. What this miniseries makes clear is that he is one of the most fascinating figures in American history, and whenever he is the focus The Roosevelts can be very lively. It is also helpful that the series got some great voice work out of Paul Giamatti to inhabit the role of Teddy.
Unfortunately, it almost seems like Teddy is made into a side character in his own miniseries as Franklin D. Roosevelt is almost immediately introduced as well in the first episode. That would have been okay if the FDR segments were handled as well as the Theodore Roosevelt segments. Instead, they are just regurgitation of commonly known facts or a retread of things that Ken Burns has already covered (World War II in The War, and the Great Depression in The Dust Bowl).
However, the most poorly done character in the miniseries is Eleanor Roosevelt. She is set up as an important figure in both Theodore and Franklin’s life and yet finds herself constantly being given the backseat in this miniseries. It also doesn’t help that it is clear that Meryl Streep is Acting with a capital A even if you can only hear her. The Roosevelts might actually be at its best in the last hour of the program when it’s almost exclusively about Eleanor. It really makes you wonder what this miniseries could have been if it gave Eleanor some more focus.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a lesser work of Ken Burns, but with some great voice work (once again Peter Coyote is the unsung hero of the production) and some segments that are truly interesting the miniseries prevents itself from being a complete bore.