Like soccer fans who exhaust themselves during World Cup season, staying up past their bedtimes to watch the latest televised match, my wife and I grew groggy and red-eyed over several nights this month as we screened “The Roosevelts” on PBS.
New episodes of Ken Burns’ seven-part series on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt quickly piled up in our DVR. We played catch-up over a few evenings, binge-watching our way through Burns’ account of the legendary political family.
We weren’t the first people, I know, to be worn out by a Roosevelt. In an early episode of the series, author David McCullough tells of a champion hunter summoned to the White House to meet Theodore, who fancied himself quite the sportsman, too.
The hunter emerged from Roosevelt’s office a couple of hours later, wearied from a conversation that had proven decidely one-sided. Asked what he’d told TR, the hunter blandly replied, “I told him my name.”
McCullough narrated Burns’ 1990 documentary masterpiece, “The Civil War,” which drew a surprisingly large audience for a public TV show. In today’s more fragmented media universe, attracting viewers to the premiere of a series like “The Roosevelts” is a lot harder.
But if you missed Burns’ latest production this month, don’t worry. Episodes have been lingering online for a time at pbs.org, and they’ll have a durable shelf life beyond that in frequent PBS reruns and on DVD.
Besides McCullough, another pleasure of “The Roosevelts” comes in seeing Burns’ longtime collaborator, Geoffrey C. Ward, in front of the camera this time. Ward, who typically works behind the scenes as a writer on Burns’ films, has also penned several books on FDR. In “The Roosevelts,” Ward draws on his personal experiences as a polio patient to speculate, in emotional terms, on Franklin’s struggles with the disease.
I was most interested, though, in Burns’ treatment of Franklin’s older cousin, TR, since Theodore Roosevelt hasn’t gotten as much attention from documentarians as FDR.
TR, perhaps our most frenetic president, seemed perfectly suited to the emerging age of moving pictures that coincided with his presidency.
But Burns, true to form, focuses on archival photographs instead, lingering over them as if gazing raptly at America’s national scrapbook.
Many of those images, including a vivid picture of TR at Louisiana’s Breton National Wildlife Refuge, show up again in a companion volume for the series, also called “The Roosevelts.”
That mammoth coffee-table book rests on my nightstand these days, so it looks as though I’ll be spending the rest of the autumn with Theodore Roosevelt. I doubt that I’ll ever get to the bottom of him.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.