By Carolyn Todd
September 14, 2014 at 12:00 PM EDT
PBS/Getty Images

“It’s Shakespeare,” historian George Will says in the opening minutes of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, “to have a single family in which human flaws and virtues are on such vivid display—and the constant struggle between those vices and those virtues to try to do good and fulfill one’s duty.”

In his new PBS series, Ken Burns doesn’t need to embellish history to evoke Shakespeare—only poetically document it. The Roosevelts, then, is not just a fascinating account of one of the most sociopolitically influential families in U.S. history—but a testament to the truth of how pain and hardship can shape a person into an American hero. “All the Roosevelts were wounded people with something to overcome,” explains historian Geoffrey C. Ward.

Tonight’s episode, “Get Action,” which kicks off the weeklong event, stars mostly Theodore, telling the improbable story of how a sick and fearful little boy overcame his weaknesses and grew into the robust, fearless man who would become the youngest president in American history.

Born into enormous privilege but crippled by acute asthma, Theodore’s parents and doctors did not expect him to live long. But The Roosevelts makes clear that were it not for Teddy’s early struggles, he might not have become the history-making president we remember him as. “By acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid,” said Theodore of his youth. The young child overcompensated for his physical weakness with a voracity for learning and an energy level so hyperactive that, “if he was a little boy today, he might’ve been given Ritalin,” speculates historian Patricia O’Toole.

The man’s life was never slow or dull, and neither is The Roosevelts. “Get action, be sane,” Teddy’s father always told him, and he lived by those words. Theodore staved off the demons of depression that haunted him after the dual-loss of his mother and wife by staying in constant, frenetic motion—”like a 6-year-old child on steroids rushing through life,” as Will puts it. The Roosevelts is smart to take its time reveling in the most colorful details about the madcap life Theodore led in his 20s and 30s—telling flashes of an extraordinary leader in the making.

As a 23-year-old state congressman, New York’s youngest, Teddy once told a rival statesman he would—and I quote—”kick him in the balls” if he ever tried to make good on a threat to kill him. When Theodore moved out West, he became a new kind of cowboy—outfitted in a fringed buckskin suit and wielding a silver Tiffany’s bowie knife as he rounded up cattle, hunted down outlaws, and slayed grizzly bears. Back East, when he was made a reform commissioner at the NYPD, he donned a cape as he led after-dark manhunts through the city streets to catch cops snoozing on the job.

Theodore was later appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy—sporting a custom Brooks Brothers uniform, no less—where he hyped for war. Fortunately, Burns isn’t afraid to shatter any nostalgic illusions you might have, like the idea that Roosevelt was merely the strong imperialist America needed. “He was a killer, you can’t sanitize that,” says historian Evan Thomas, describing Roosevelt’s “bloodlust” and war-glorification. Case in point: He made his entrance into the Spanish-American War by commandeering a ship of his Rough Riders to Cuba—where he led, against orders, a reckless and blood-soaked charge on San Juan Hill. Successful, he basked in vainglory, bragging about his bravery and proud of losing the most men.

In an America unsure of its place in the world at the turn of the 20th century, Theodore’s unapologetic wartime bravado incited a cultish adoration from the public—a celebrity-like status that enabled his barnstorming rise in politics, which the first episode only begins to touch upon.

“Get Action” also begins to tell Franklin Delano’s and Eleanor’s stories, but barely—in an episode so dominated by the downright theatrical Theodore, their parts feel peripheral, like an afterthought. Though future episodes will spotlight the power couple to-be, “Get Action” might’ve been best left to their scene-stealing cousin (to FDR) and uncle (to Eleanor), Theodore.

At more than one point, The Roosevelts makes you wonder how, frankly, such a nut job became one of the finest presidents in American history. “You could say that Teddy Roosevelt was slightly crazy,” says Thomas, matter-of-factly. He is consistently described by both historians and contemporaries as being manic, self-aggrandizing, chichi, highly neurotic, and in constant danger of sinking into a deep depression.

Documentaries about American icons often make us nostalgically yearn for the past—but The Roosevelts deftly avoids the pitfalls of sugarcoating and over-simplification. Burns doesn’t gloss over the dark details; he knows the story hinges on them. Rather, The Roosevelts makes you crave a time when politicians weren’t coldly calculated caricatures but rugged, irreverent men—even if they are, in the words of a President McKinley political adviser, “a damned cowboy and a madman.”