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Ken Burns & PBS Score Big Hit with ‘The Roosevelts’

Friends and fans of Soapblox know that I am a huge fan of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Teddy Roosevelt (TR), so when Ken Burns unveiled his new documentary, The Roosevelts, An Intimate History, I was thrilled. Now that it has come and gone and I have seen the entire series twice, I am even more thrilled to report that the series is not only great, it is a major hit across all media platforms!

Oh and don’t worry if you missed it… you can still see it for free! (see below)

The Numbers

Just on TV alone, PBS scored 9 million viewers the first night and averaged 7 million across the week which also saw major network TV premieres. The series crushed network shows like Fox’s The New Girl which was seen by less than half, around 3 million viewers and may have cut into Dancing with the Stars which was down significantly from last year (from 16 million to 13 million). It also got about the same numbers as NFL Thursday Kick Off and beat the final rerun before the following week’s premiere of The Big Bang Theory, Castle and Tom Sellek’s Blue Bloods.
Yet it doesn’t stop there. PBS reports that it is the most streamed show they have EVER had and the numbers are expected to rise over time. According to Nielson ratings, the show even performed well in the Twitter-sphere generating a lot of buzz and publicity with some 3.6 million Twitter TV impressions over the course of the week.

Ken Burns may have stuck to PBS, though he is one of the more forward thinking producer / directors and has offered the show for early viewing and purchase. The show was available for retail and streaming on Amazon and is a #1 in the documentary category and even peaked on iTunes at #4 OVERALL!

So all in all, this is a major victory for Ken Burns and PBS as well. They were beating network shows that are commercially sponsored, putting up numbers that competed with football and generated buzz across the internet.

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The three titans of 20th Century American politics who profoundly shaped and improved American interests and the middle class, combated fascism and helped create the United Nations and a declaration of human rights that became an international standard.

The Impact

The documentary generated a lot of buzz across the internet and across journalism. Stories about America’s first noble family have been appearing for weeks and continue to do so in every publication from Salon to the AV Club to USA Today and the New York Times. Many are becoming nostalgic for a time when Presidents went after the powers that be as TR and FDR did and Congress, in one of the most corrupt times in our nation’s history, still came together to do what was right for the country, passing bills that outlawed monopolies, gave Social Security to all Americans and women’s rights, while our present Congress thanks to Republican obstructionists, couldn’t pass gas without it going through a committee that would ultimately blame Obama for it.

Huffington Post ran an interesting article about our present times compared to then. Salon also ran a great article about how Rooseveltian strong federal government is what made America strong.

So we pass the torch to a new generation of people to understand that St. Reagan was really pretty mediocre compared to the real titans of American politics, the Roosevelts, who touched more lives than any other American family.

I will let Ken Burns himself explain it as he has in numerous interviews, like the following one from the Daily Show. His passion for the Roosevelts is unmatched and so many of his other documentaries were touched by the Roosevelts in one way or the other.

I think the saddest think Mr. Burns says, is that Americans naive wanting of perfect candidates for public office elects the wrong breed of people to be our leaders. We are not perfect, why should our leaders be? It is sad to think that if FDR ran for office today, he would probably lose because he was in a wheelchair.

The Review

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Teddy Roosevelt on the stump. Reminds me of Bioshock Infinite.

The show itself does not glamorize the family. It has criticism from staunch conservatives like George Will and real, honest paintings from biographers and witnesses. It has the patented Ken Burns style with memoirs and diary entries, letters and old photographs. It dives into secondary and tertiary characters and paints a rich and vivid time. It is easily one of Burn’s best works, and while it can feel, at times, a little familiar due to Burns not pushing his style forward in any significant way, it is that familiarity that maybe makes it all come together.  He breathes life into people we seldom see outside of overused portraits, shows their flaws, their defects, the things they needed to be criticized for and things they were never praised for but should have been. By the end you will know TR, ER and FDR and as each of them find their own independent peaks and drift into their downward slope, Burns will leave you teary eyed as the band of restless fighters succumb to life’s end often feeling there was much more work to complete before they breath their last breaths.

Objects seem smaller in the rear view mirror, so it really is something when people can stand the test of time and be remembered nearly 50, 70 or 100 years after they have passed as Elanor, FDR and Teddy have respectively.
However we tend to mythologize these people as heroes and geniuses. Many forget all the trouble FDR and Teddy both had with the Republican parties of their day and all of their personal flaws. They were flesh and blood human beings with a great deal of private issues that tend to be left out of the history books.

They were a rich family that believed in the healing power of altruism and that giving back to the country that made you so lucky was not just a novel idea, it was their duty as Americans. Though Teddy was an imperialist who loved war, even to the point where it was equal parts naive and scary.  FDR was a ladies man who cheated on his wife many times and as a young man was egotistical, entitled and arrogant. Elanor was ambitious but self-centered, often ignoring her children to have her own life. All three battled a very debilitating brand of depression that is crippling, even among the well-to-do, leading to numerous suicides and rampant alcoholism in the family.

All three were given incredible obstacles to overcome. Teddy was born with very bad Asthma in a time when that meant a short life. He lost his father, at a young age, then his wife and mother on the same day. He overcame those issues to become Governor of New York, lead a private army up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War and become the President of the United States! He changed the office forever, building the Panama Canal, breaking up monopolies, and fighting for a woman’s right to vote.

Elanor was Teddy’s niece, born to his beloved brother who’s great potential was destroyed by alcoholism and depression and his lovely wife who hated Elanor, called her ugly and ignored her. She grew up insecure and cold, yet smart and unsympathetic to those that don’t make their own luck. She watcher her brother wither away to drink and die as so many in the Oyster Bay Roosevelt clan did as well, including her cousin Kermit, Teddy’s son. She went on to be the most influential first lady in our history, toured the country where her husband could not, championed human rights and ended up writing the UN charter on Human Rights.

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Teddy with his dog Fala and a youngster at his school to help people with Polio in Warm Springs, Georgia.

Franklin was Teddy’s distant cousin in the Hyde Park clan of the Roosevelts. He had a pretty charmed life as a boy, did not see too much pain and had a dotting mother. Yet he worked as a lawyer, headed a government agency and worked in fields where he got to see the working class and admired their strength. Right when his life was ready to excel, he contracted Polio and was paralyzed, never to walk again with his political career in ruins. He climbed back, built a school for polio afflicted children and learned, at great pain, to pretend to walk and to stand for great lengths of time. Underestimated, at first, attacked second, he went on to be the greatest president of the 20th Century, getting America through and out of the Great Depression, then through World War II, seeing before anyone else the dangers of the Axis, and signed many, many laws that continue to help the American people today from the Social Security Act to the Montgomery GI Bill.

I have seen most of Burn’s works from his Ken Burn’s America documentaries to The War, The National Parks, Baseball, Jazz, The Dustbowl and of course, his magnum opus The Civil War. I would rank this very, very high on the list. It is a return to form for Mr. Burns, focusing on the personal narrative is what he does best and it works exceptionally well here. You feel it is a story about a family as much as it is about 3 individuals and we rise and fall with them, often at the same time (FDR rises as Teddy falls) and in that respect, it runs against the grain of the tired personal biography, setting new standards in excellence in many areas while still being that familiar Burnsian style many, such as myself, have come to know and love.

A+ Rating all the way.

But I Missed It!

No you didn’t! In our age of media everywhere, this show continues to be everywhere! You can buy the DVDs or Blue Rays from many places including Amazon, and the show is available on a variety of streaming services such as Apple TV, iTunes and Roku. So if you have those, do a search and it will likely pop up.

If you have a desktop computer or a media device that go on the web, you can stream the shows FOR FREE from the PBS website.

A Personal Note

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FDR loved to meet the real people of this country.

My grandfather lived through the FDR era and had nothing but great things to say about him. I once mentioned that Hoover had gotten a bit of a bad wrap even though he did deserve most of it, and he was not to keen on even that. You see, he was in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC and it helped put food on the table for his father and sister when the farm began to fail. He lived through the Depression, took issue with any of these conservatives who blame the New Deal for making the Depression worse (an issue they are either lying or stupid to believe) and served in the US 8th Army Air Corps over Germany. He was one of the many that were touched greatly by the policies of Franklin D Roosevelt and Elanor Roosevelt.  I grew up knowing that and as my Grandfather began to pass, I spent a lot of time with him talking about history. While he may have put Washington or Lincoln first, there was no question who the third best president in this country was.

For my grandfather and for his great admiration of FDR, I want to pass on this personal note, as so many people talk of Presidents passed as novel figures. FDR was no novel figure. He saved this country and he even saved capitalism, though he also was there, in the lives of my grandfather and great aunt, helping to make a difference.

For this and many other reasons, I advise that you watch Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts – An Intimate History, for it is an important part of our shared American heritage. If you love this country, you have the Roosevelts to thank, at least, in small part for curbing the selfish greed that threatened to destroy it, the military threats that threatened to topple it and the economic depression that threatened to yank its middle class foundations apart.