The Perfect Ken Burns Binge-Watch Plan

This should get you through at least a week of self-quarantine

March 16, 2020 11:04 am
ken burns binge guide
Why not cozy up with American's foremost modern historian this week?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

As an anxious person, I like doing everything in my power to feel some sense of comfort. For years, people much smarter than me have claimed that the way they do it is to go home and watch trash TV. They’ll list off any number of reality shows that they veg out to after a long day, and I’ll lie and say I’ll check them out, but never do. There’s just something about drowning your mind in crap after a long day of more crap that doesn’t seem especially appealing to me. I get why other people like it, but it’s just not my thing.

Usually I’ll just throw on a basketball or baseball game, but since we’re currently living through the only time since I’ve been alive that neither of those options are available due to the coronavirus shutdown, I’ve got to get creative. I’ve got plenty of movies I’ve been meaning to watch, but I find myself moving towards the one type of viewing experience that never fails to make me feel better: the Ken Burns documentary. 

I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out why I love to watch anything with the Burns name on it. Is it because I like the soothing tones of David McCullough or Peter Coyote? Is it because I think “Ashokan Farewell” should be used in every single movie ever made? Am I incredibly boring? It’s probably all of those things, but the real answer is that the Ken Burns doc, while not always perfect in its reporting, strives for honesty. They all tell the story of America, the good and the not great at all.  They’re easy to digest, but also don’t leave you hungover the day after, feeling like you killed off half your brain cells the night before watching the latest Survivor spinoff. 

The problem I’m faced with right now, however, is that I’ve seen every single Burns doc that’s come out. The well is dry for me. That hasn’t stopped me from rewatching before; I’m just having a hard time picking out one to watch at this present moment. It’s spring, so I normally watch the first episode of Baseball before the season starts, and with PBS offering up the series for free right now, I could go ahead and do that at any point during my time working from home. But it just doesn’t feel the same. 

So I put together a watching plan. A way to rewatch Ken Burns docs in a different way. I’m doing it in as close to chronological order as possible, a way to show the story of America. How this country is flawed in many ways, but figures out how to keep going and, hopefully, growing. 

Here’s the plan: 

  1. Getting this out of the way early on: watch the war docs during a different binge. Start with The Civil War, then The War from 2007 and then The Vietnam War, which I consider one of his more recent classics. If you need all the wars, Stephen Ives, Amanda Pollak and Rob Rapley did The Great War a few years back — not a Burns doc, but it gets you both world wars. I know the war docs are hugely popular and a vital part of the Burns canon, but if you’ve seen them, I’d suggest rewatching them later, and in this order.
  1. Start with episode 1 of The West. You get to see the native people who lived here centuries ago, and the Europeans who came over and took the land from them. If that doesn’t feel like a fitting starting point, I don’t know what does.
  1. Benjamin Franklin has a doc in production by Burns and his crew that’s due in 2022, but for now, the 1997 Thomas Jefferson doc is the only one dedicated to a founding father. Narrated by Ossie Davis with Sam Waterston doing the part of the third American president and Gwyneth Paltrow as Jefferson’s granddaughter, this two-parter gets a lot of early American ground. Prepare to carve out 180 minutes for this one.
  1. Next, hit up Lewis & Clark, also from 1997. The duo’s journey in search of the Northwest Passage is about as much excitement as you’re going to get from one of these. I rewatched it recently and got to thinking somebody could easily do a Lewis, Clark and Zombies horror type take on this one.
  1. I will say if you have to watch one war episode, do “The Cause” from The Civil War so you can weep during the Sullivan Ballou letter part. 
  1. “1st Inning” of Baseball. Possibly the greatest opening five minutes of any doc ever. Bob Costas explaining why the game is perfect is, well, perfect. 
  1. When Burns focuses on a specific individual, it’s usually a slower pace, but Mark Twain is entertaining all the way through. And until the Ernest Hemingway doc comes out next year, it’s the only film Burns has done dedicated to a great American writer. 
  1. “Get Action,” the first episode of The Roosevelts doc, fits nicely here. I was actually surprised at how fast this seven-part series moved. Some people didn’t enjoy it, but the early days of the powerful political family fits right after the Twain docs. 
  1. Again, Burns focusing on one figure: this time it’s America’s most famous architect in Frank Lloyd Wright. This is my other personal favorite next to the Twain doc in terms of depicting the life of one specific personality. 
  1. A Roosevelt again. This time it’s Teddy looking to change the way America treats its most sacred lands with the Antiquities Act in the second episode of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, “The Last Refuge.” For my money, I’d say this is overall the most uplifting of all the Burns’ docs. At the very least, it might get you to want to do some social distancing in nature. 
  1. “Gumbo,” the first episode of Jazz. I also suggest just watching all the multi-part docs all the way through. But that’s up to you. 
  1. 2005’s Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is a masterpiece among a lot of great docs. Watch both episodes. 
  1. Prohibition Episode 1 to get you set for….
  1. “4th Inning – A National Heirloom” from Baseball, followed by episodes two and three of Jazz. Get your Roaring ‘20s on. 
  1. I think The Dust Bowl is always necessary. Follow both up with Episode 2 of Country Music if you’ve already watched his recent music doc in full. If you haven’t, I’d suggest getting on that right away. 
  1. “The Rising Road” from The Roosevelts looks at FDR and the New Deal. 
  1. Wind down with both episodes of Jackie Robinson. Sure, America has done a lot of good things since Robinson broke the color barrier, but if you’ve followed this, you’ve just spent a few days watching Ken Burns docs. Finishing on the New Deal and Jackie Robinson feels like a good way to finish up. 

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