Last night, Ken Burns’ latest, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, debuted with two hours of the sort of scenery that is almost unspeakable (that is, except for narrator Peter Coyote and scores of lulling voiceover experts) in its gorgeousness. PBS, with its mingy-minded obsession with Anglophilia and timid, protect-funding-above-all programming, fell behind cable television long ago. So now, when it comes time to present Burns’ contribution to big-beauty-brand TV, it must fight for viewers who are more accustomed to going to sites like the Discovery Channel for pretty pictures to fill their wide-screen televisions.
The first part of National Parks benefited from its portrait of John Muir, the autodidact naturalist who was good for many an eccentric anecdote as he scampered across our national landscape, living in trees and scrawling eloquences in his journals. It also featured park ranger Shelton Johnson, whose love of Yosemite Park and whose voice, as finely burred as one of the trees he admires, help make him an entrancing new TV personality.
Tonight, part two, titled “The Scripture of Our Nature,” contrasts more national beauty with spoilage by mean old businesspeople trying to make a buck off outdoor beauty. (Yes, this is an idea as old as America, but Burns knows how to make it seem freshly appalling.) And we get a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a fierce defender of the park system.
As with all of Burns’ productions, National Parks can be too long, too slow, too pleased with itself. But on a night when Parks enables you to avoid Gossip Girl and Dancing with the Stars, why should we be anything but grateful?
Are you watching National Parks?