Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns's latest PBS opus, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, debuts Sunday night at 8 p.m. Eastern, before unspooling its next six installments at the same time every other night of the week. If you'd rather stream, the entirety of the miniseries will be available Monday on PBS.com, PBS member sites, and various PBS digital platforms. (It leaves streaming Friday, Sept. 26, so hurry.) It will also be rerun frequently on PBS and comes out on DVD Tuesday.
So that's a whole host of ways to watch. But should you? This sucker, like many of Burns's most famous films, including The Civil War, Baseball, and The War, is really, really long. It's seven installments, of roughly two hours each, so you'll be devoting around 14 hours of your life to this thing. If you really, really like the Roosevelts, that's great, because this is a terrific screen biography of the famous family. But what if you're more Roosevelt-curious?
Well, here is the guide for you. These are exactly the hours and episodes you should watch.
Episode one: "Get Action" (airs Sunday)
Galloping across 43 years of American history, the first episode of The Roosevelts covers everything from Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt's birth all the way through the moment when he ascends to the presidency after William McKinley is assassinated. The foremost quality of Roosevelts that sets it apart from many other Burns films is the way that it digs into the emotional and psychological character of its three central figures (Franklin and Eleanor being the other two), and "Get Action" is tremendously good at figuring out what drove Teddy. (The actor Paul Giamatti provides the voice of Teddy in archival readings, and he is very, very good, if unexpected casting.)
In particular, it's the best episode for dealing with one of The Roosevelts' central themes: mental illness. Both Teddy and Eleanor (who will be further fleshed out in later episodes) struggled gravely with what we might term depression now, and "Get Action" has tremendous sensitivity to how much trying to stay one step ahead of his demons drove the future president.
Bonus points for... elucidating and illuminating the Roosevelt family tree. Don't know how Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt are related? You will now!
Don't watch if... you're a big Franklin fan. He's mostly a little kid in this one.
Episode two: "In the Arena" (airs Monday)
Weirdly, the miniseries loses a bit of momentum once Teddy is president, because it's no longer covering four decades of history but is focused instead on his comparatively short time in office. But the guy was such an active president that not too much of that momentum is lost. There are other issues, however. For instance, the smaller, quieter center of the other episodes gets a bit misplaced here, but that's mostly because Theodore Roosevelt's presidency is so packed with incident and contradiction that there's a lot to cover.
What's best here is the way that the episode re-centers Teddy's vast intelligence and empathy as vital to his character. Yes, he's well known as an outdoorsman and man of action, but he was also the American president who wrote the most letters, someone who could read three books if he had a free day. Burns and his writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, delve into all of Theodore Roosevelt's complications and contradictions, and they return with a portrait of a man constantly questing and searching for some other, better version of himself.
Bonus points for... Franklin and Eleanor get married! (Teddy was there. Don't you want to have been there now?)
Don't watch if... you have read many biographies of Theodore Roosevelt. The episode has little here that you won't know.
Episode three: "The Fire of Life" (airs Tuesday)
This is likely the best episode of The Roosevelts, and the one that best embraces the second half of the title. After essentially boxing himself out of a third term, Theodore Roosevelt spends the installment, which lasts from 1910 until his death in 1919, trying to find something else to do with himself, only to slowly realize that age is creeping up on him, slowing him to the degree that his old demons can return to haunt him. Nobody comes out and says it, but the portrait Burns sketches fills it in anyway — this was a man with too much life, stuck with too little to live for.
This is also the episode where Franklin and Eleanor begin to come into their own, as it covers the beginnings of Franklin's political rise and gets into the intricacies of their enormously complicated marriage. The two deeply loved each other but also occasionally seemed to need a respite from each other, and those tensions would drive them for the rest of their lives. Burns hasn't always nailed more personal, emotional material like this in the past, but he absolutely does in "The Fire of Life."
Bonus points for... a sequence delving into Teddy's fascinating lust for war (pegged to his desire to fight in World War I, even though he was in his 50s).
Don't watch if... nah, you should probably watch this one.
Episode four: "The Storm" (airs Wednesday)
The one episode you must watch is followed by the one episode you can probably skip. There are many advantages to The Roosevelts' intimate focus, but it also creates situations where, say, the beginning of the Great Depression is reduced to a footnote in the lives of its central figures, which is what happens here.
With Teddy dead and buried, the miniseries struggles a bit to find a central figure. Franklin is certainly important on the American scene at this point, but he's not president (or even an ex-president), which means that this episode casts about for a central narrative idea and doesn't really find one. Edward Herrmann (nominated for an Emmy for playing FDR in the ‘70s) and Meryl Streep give voice to the couple, and their work keeps this one floating along well enough. And the sequence in which FDR is stricken with polio in his late 30s is enormously touching. But that's also about the only material here that feels really essential. This could have easily been collapsed into a half hour and folded into one of the other installments.
Bonus points for... George Will talking about how Americans just wanted to have fun after World War I and sounding kind of pissed off about it.
Don't watch if... you're not into an intricate dissection of a marriage. Because there's a lot of that here.
Episode five: "The Rising Road" (airs Thursday)
Franklin's election to the presidency provides The Roosevelts with the spark it needs to get back on the road, and this episode — dealing with his first two terms and the Great Depression — is one of the better installments. In particular, it's fantastic at illuminating several aspects of FDR's political genius — how he intuitively understood how to use radio, and how he was able to transcend his upper-crust origins to connect with the common man. If the first four episodes have struggled a bit to find the FDR Americans knew and loved, he arrives in full force here.
This episode is also vital for the way it depicts Eleanor's slow realization of her own political capital. Of the three central figures of the miniseries, Eleanor's life is the one that's most easily reduced to a series of bullet points in high school history classes. Burns's film — and Streep's narration — returns her to a living, breathing person, with hopes and desires and a relentless need to keep her husband focused on helping the country's neediest.
Bonus points for... footage of FDR struggling to walk, which is immensely touching and hasn't been seen before.
Don't watch if... you can't handle grim economic circumstances, because Burns quickly sketches out why the Depression was so very bad.
Episode six: "The Common Cause" (airs Friday)
This is the World War II episode, and it's also the one where Burns leaves behind his central figures the most — to the film's detriment. The second world war is territory the director has covered before (in The War), and even if this episode looks at the event through the prism of how Franklin tried first to head it off without getting involved, then tried to prevail through it after Pearl Harbor, it can't help but feel slightly repetitive. Eleanor recedes a bit — she was more interested in domestic than foreign policy at this time — and, instead, the episode devotes a great deal of time to FDR's friendship with Winston Churchill. Which isn't bad, all things considered, but also feels like territory the History Channel has already covered 70 billion times.
Still, there's a grim, haunted quality to this episode that continues into the next. FDR decided to run for a third term largely because he was terrified of the rise of fascism, but then World War II greatly accelerated FDR's decline in health. When the episode ends, his death is right around the corner. Burns nicely uses that melancholy to his advantage.
Bonus points for... a Christmas montage with some beautiful sound design that blends together carols with the drumbeats of approaching war.
Don't watch if... you believe FDR knew Pearl Harbor was coming, because Burns doesn't and he skillfully debunks that old idea.
Episode seven: "A Strong and Active Faith" (airs Saturday)
The miniseries rouses itself for its final, scattershot installment, which covers the brief tenure of Franklin's fourth term, before turning itself over to how Eleanor became a well-loved elder stateswoman after her husband's death. Though every episode featuring the two has involved some variation on the question of "Just how did these two feel about each other?" the final one attempts a sort of answer, particularly in the wake of Eleanor discovering, after his death, that her husband's long-time mistress had continued to see him (after she forbade it).
But Burns is always good at summing up his stories, and the last 15 minutes here provide a kind of elegy not just for the three Roosevelts but also for the classic American liberalism that they represented. The 20th century was shaped mightily by these three, and the film finds an elegant way to bring them closure and sum up how their lives mattered in the greater American story.
Bonus points for... FDR telling jokes about his dog. (If you know FDR, you probably know the jokes, but you might not have seen the footage.)
Don't watch if... you think the Roosevelts changed the country for the worse. Burns pretty clearly disagrees with you.
Overall series grade: 4/5