'The National Parks: America's Best Idea,' beginning Sunday on PBS
REASON TO WATCH: Ken Burns ("Baseball," "Jazz," "The Civil War") and longtime colleague-collaborator Dayton Duncan explore the national parks system.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: At 12 hours, TV's most exhaustive historic survey, beginning in the mid-1800s, with the campaign to save Yosemite, and ending in 1980, when the system was largely completed. As always, Burns and Duncan are interested in stories, people and the essential idea of what it means to be an American; don't come here to learn how Carlsbad Caverns were formed.
SUNDAY'S EPISODE: Mostly covers the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone, with a starring role for John Muir, patron saint of Yosemite.
BOTTOM LINE: America's best idea? Upon reading that subtitle, one is tempted to say, "Get a grip, Ken." Why not settle for something a little more modest, like, "one of the greatest ideas," or "one hell of an idea," rather than set yourself up for some distracting argument over whether, say, the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation was superior? But, please, everyone, get past that title — paraphrasing writer-environmentalist Wallace Stegner's pronouncement — and you indisputably have TV's best idea this fall.
"National Parks" is magnificent — and maybe, just maybe, the best work ever produced by Burns. Glorious at every turn, "Parks" is rich, detailed, generous, fair, thoughtful, intelligent and, of course, visually spectacular. Burns and Duncan always seem best when they're passionate about a subject, and that passion shines through here.