Every few years, in a pattern established by his emblematic 1990 breakthrough The Civil War, documentary maestro Ken Burns upstages the fall TV season in mid-September with his latest monumental immersion in historical storytelling. He triumphs again with PBS's seven-night, 14-hour The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which, as its subtitle suggests, never loses sight of the poignant human drama unfolding against a tide of national and world turmoil. (The series begins Sunday, Sept. 14 at 8/7c and continues nightly through Saturday, Sept. 20.)
With exhaustive detail and the impassioned yet critical empathy all great historians have for their outsize subjects, Burns and his collaborators honor the complicated, compelling lives of three unforgettable personalities. With Meryl Streep voicing the words of Eleanor, Paul Giamatti as Teddy and Edward Herrmann — twice Emmy-nominated for 1970s miniseries in the role — as Franklin, Burns & Co. vividly conjure the irrepressible vitality of TR ("a steam engine in trousers," according to George Will); the inspiring tenacity of his fifth cousin (and only four-term president) FDR; and the defiant independence of the emotionally insecure Eleanor, who determined early on that the best way to be loved was to be of use to others, especially after becoming aware of her husband's infidelities.
These figures dominated American politics for much of the first half of the last century, transforming the role of the federal government and presidency through two world wars as well as a Great Depression, with FDR making an unusually personal connection to his public through radio Fireside Chats. "He is at once God and their intimate friend," observed journalist Martha Gellhorn.
But what mostly escaped notice, with the help of a compliant media, was the extent of his infirmity after contracting polio at 39, the subject of the documentary series' fourth and most affecting chapter (Wednesday, Sept. 17). Series writer Geoffrey C. Ward, a polio survivor, speaks eloquently of the terror and helplessness the disease can instill in someone formerly so robust. And the sequence recalling FDR's rehabilitation in Warm Springs, Georgia, is moving and uplifting. "Rosie" is remembered by fellow sufferers as a "laughing giant," giving all in his midst the will to go on — as he would continue to do for a country in economic collapse and reluctant to engage again in war.
"The exceptional presidents are the exception," notes historian David McCullough. A similar claim can be made for Burns, who continues to illuminate American history with extraordinary fervor.
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FROM ZOMBIES TO CLONES: It was probably inevitable, given the monster success of AMC's The Walking Dead, that another zombie horror series would be forthcoming (and we're not talking the spinoff, or The CW's quirky midseason iZombie) — but I'd hoped for something a little less slapdash and cheeseball than Syfy's Z Nation (Friday, 10/9c), which comes from the well-named Asylum production company (home of the Sharknado franchise). And while Z Nation (or as I prefer to think of it, The Running Dead) doesn't exactly play the gory low-budget mayhem for campy laughter, it's hard not to roll, or possibly cover, one's eyes at something this familiar and deeply shallow, with casting mostly so generic — with the exception of Lost's Harold Perrineau as a Delta Force soldier barking orders — that they're all so much chum in this kill-or-be-eaten apocalypse. Things do perk up toward the end of the pilot when a zombie baby ("Chuckie-Nado!" "It's Alive!") goes on the attack. But otherwise, no reason to let this get in the way of your anticipation for the return on Oct. 12 of the more thoughtful, character-driven and truly chilling The Walking Dead'.
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