The name Ken Burns brings a few things to mind: hypnotic documentaries built on pain-staking research, zooming and panning of still photographs that (sort of) bring two dimensions to life, and the back of one's eyelids. Anyone who's seen a Burns documentary knows that they're a bit of an endurance test -- but that if you can get to the finish line, you can pretty much call yourself a "(insert documentary subject here) expert."
Burns hasn't strayed from that formula in his latest 12-hour epoch, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, but this may be his best documentary to date. I've only been fortunate enough to see one of the six segments, "The Last Refuge (1890-1915)," but trust me, it's way more exciting than it sounds. And here's perhaps the highest compliment I can award to the series: Even after sitting through two-and-a-half hours last night, I'm very much looking forward to more.
By using his patented Ken Burns Effect -- pairing a voiceover with still photographs in motion -- Burns brings to light the importance of our National Parks like no one has before. And by focusing the film's attention on the men who made these national treasures possible (the ass-kicking John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, in the case of "The Last Refuge") while letting the beauty of nature speak for itself, Burns brings out the Ranger Rick in all of us.
Perhaps it's the subject matter (as a neo-hippie, I'm fascinated by the great outdoors). Maybe it's the stunning shots in HD. But The National Parks did what Burns' The War could not: It kept me awake. Anyone who can sit through an entire Burns doc deserves some sort of medal -- and National Parks, with its incredible tales of strong-willed men fighting a bureaucracy and hours of B-roll of elk, waterfalls, birds, and other woodland creatures (yes, moving pictures in a Ken Burns doc!), will let you keep your eyes open without a bottomless trough of energy drinks by your side. It's captivating, but make no mistake -- the glaciers the documentary aims to protect move at a faster pace.
Sure, we're all still excited about the fall premiere season, but don't let that dissuade you from catching a peek at this wonderful treat. You may just learn something! Why watch Kelsey Grammer's slow descent to the bottom of the comedy barrel when you can marvel at the formation of the National Park Service? Hello!?!? It's a no-brainer!
The National Parks airs nightly this week on PBS and will be rerun after it concludes. The episodes are also available on PBS.org for free online streaming the day after each segment airs.