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Hillary Atkin

‘The Roosevelts,’ Ken Burns’ Latest PBS Documentary Series, Opens to Big Numbers

Sep 17, 2014

As were “The Civil War” and “The War” before it, master documentarian Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” is turning out to be a massive blockbuster for PBS.

The sprawling documentary chronicling the lives of Theodore, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt began Sunday night with the first of its seven two-hour episodes, which delivered an average audience of 9.06 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National data, Live + SD.

Before the first chapter aired, more than 200,000 views of trailers for “The Roosevelts” foretold the strong demand for the series.

Burns, whose other recent documentaries include “Prohibition” (2011) and “The Dust Bowl” (2012), said that releasing a film is like having a conversation with your closest friends and family. If, of course, they number in the millions of people.

“I’m always struck by the thoughts and comments and how engaged the American people are,” he said. “The fact that such a large audience tuned in the first night is all the more rewarding. We hope more people have a chance to watch on all of the platforms PBS has set up to share the work.”

In addition to the broadcasts, which run through Sept. 20, the 14-hour series is streaming at pbs.org/theroosevelts, and on PBS stations’ digital platforms, Roku and Apple TV — and will be available through Sept. 29.

“The Roosevelts,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote, spans more than 100 years, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962, vividly bringing to life the history of two presidencies, multiple family tragedies, Prohibition, the Depression and two world wars.

With never-before-seen photographs and vibrant but silent film, the first chapters chronicle the life of Teddy Roosevelt, born into a world of privilege, who became America’s 26th president in a term that began 113 years ago almost to the day, on Sept. 14, 1901, after President William McKinley was assassinated.

He was, at age 42, the youngest person to become president. Overcoming severe asthma as a youth, the ambitious Roosevelt had already made a name for himself as a New York City police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York and vice president.

His cowboy persona, epitomized by forming the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, and his large ego were legendary. His most famous slogan, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” resonates to this day. Other catchphrases, indicative of his boundless energy, were “Bully!” and “Dee-lighted.”

Roosevelt ate a dozen eggs for breakfast every morning, drank coffee from a massive mug and dictated 150,000 letters in his lifetime, which the Theodore Roosevelt Center in Dickinson, N.D., is trying to get all online.

But as Burns does so well, and with Roosevelt brought to life in his own words by the voice of Paul Giamatti, viewers get a detailed, insightful, 360-degree version of Theodore — including his battles with depression, his tragic loss of his first wife and his mother on the same day and an assassination attempt, which contribute to a greater understanding of one of the most prominent leaders in U.S. history.

As the docu-series moves on to the era of Franklin and Eleanor, Theodore’s distant cousin and his niece, viewers will hear them come to life, voiced by actors Edward Herrmann (who played FDR in the landmark 1976 miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin”) and Meryl Streep.

The stories of the more modern-era Roosevelts, well-chronicled as they have been for decades, are even more captivating on Burns’ canvas, with images and video so clear they feel almost contemporary.

(“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” airs on PBS stations at 8 p.m. PT/ET through September 20.)

21 Comments

  1. brilliant production and fabulously spellbounding

  2. Great series so far. I feel this is an excellent way to “get to know” two presidents who were so important to the country. I’m really enjoying it.

  3. The series is truly capativating! I decided to watch them 5 times straight ahead!

  4. So well done! Absolutely fascinating. Being a real history buff, I learned a lot ang got even more insights into these periods of history. It is so sad that some of the same political and social challenges remain today.

  5. This series is truly riveting! I am not particularly interested in political history, but this phenomenal production has captivated my attention, like only Ken Burns can. I have learned a tremendous amount about these beyond-fascinating people, whose challenges and ambitions are monumental and deeply inspiring. There is so much to absorb here, and I will watch it all again, eventually: it IS that worthwhile.

  6. I have always felt that historical events & people shaping them is so undermined in the “Boomer” gen and their children. They aren’t taught about the struggles that came before them or what the cost has been for their luxuries, that are considered “owed” them. I am 66 yrs old. Both of my parents served during WWII and Korea as well as their siblings. I have learned so much from this series. I feel this a timely piece because of what we are heading for. PBS does a wonderful job of educating their viewers. Thank you.

  7. My comment is on this article more than the series. The series is great, as almost all Ken Burns’ documentaries are. However, in the article, it would have been nice if the writer did a better job defining “massive blockbuster.” How does the 9.06 Million compare to previous Burns’ docs… how does it compare to the other programs on that night… how does it compare to other PBS ‘heavy-hitters’ like Downtown Abbey. One would expect a little more of that in an article in TVWeek, not a recap of the series.

  8. From the beginning of the series the power that Sarah Delano Roosevelt had over her son seemed extraordinary. She insisted that he could accomplish anything he attempted to do. She was absolutely certain of his ability to succeed whatever the challenge.

    And as the story progresses and Franklin marries Eleanor, Sarah intrudes on their married lives and we soon see an almost pathetic situation. Franklin seems like an overgrown wimp.

    But then when he becomes President, it is plain to see that not only had his polio dramatically changed his personality, but that the strong overbearing mother he had was the reason why he knew he could conquer anything – even the Great Depression and World War II and even Polio.

    It is possible that without this impressive man with an overbearing mother, no one could have pulled us out of the Depression and made sure that we and the Allies won World War II.

  9. The relevance of these men and this time in history is so on point I can hardly believe they are talking about the early to mid-1900s. When I visit the FDR monument in DC and read his words, one would think they are recent quotes from someone who should be president today. How soon the country forgets and how today’s Congress and other politicians are such abject failures by comparison.

  10. Tonight’s episode on WWII reveals an interesting comparison to today’s military. In that war, all of Teddy Roosevelt’s sons and all of Franklin Roosevelt’s sons were in the service. Today, many of our political leaders avoided the military or got cushy jobs. Only a handful of current congressional and senator members have family members in the military. Thus, we see one more way in which today’s political elite are exempt from the reality of everyone else.

  11. I am a 74 year old woman whose 100% irish Catholic father hated FDR and especially Eleanor. He frequently told us, his five kids, that he’d always been a Democrat until FDR. Being a child of the fifties and not interested at all in history I was a typical teenager and let his opinion pass without comment because I knew my dad was a truly good man. As I grew older and watched my father’s initial unwillingness to accept social security checks because he saw them as a handout, even though he struggled his whole life to feed us all and really needed that money (which of course he had earned), I was amazed at the personal pride he took in creating and living his life with his family without “help.” The irony being of course that he was the first to offer anything of his to help another, whether it be shelter, clothing, food or counseling. i’m saying all this stuff because I have been and am still being greatly moved by this series you have created, Ken. My day becomes 8pm too slowly and i can hardly wait for the next episode. I’m so grateful to become truly educated on the lives of these three exceptional people. Your objectivity and brilliance in telling this story are remarkable. I also echo Theresa’s comment on the 18th. Thank you Ken and PBS from my heart for this gift.

  12. One of the most spell bounding series I have ever seen. Do not normally like series like this but I can’t wait for evening to come where I can see the next episode. Brilliantly and awesomely done. Would love Ken Burns to do on other presidents

  13. It is so interesting to watch every character in the documentary and their influence on Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s lives. Each chatacter is perfectly placed to enable the 2 presidents grow and Eleanor to blossom in her life! I look forward to the next episode with anticipation.
    Thanks so much for sharing!

  14. I feel as I have had 14 hours of the most interesting, informative history class and that I couldn’t wait for class to begin every night at 8:00 PM.

    So well done and such personal history the documentary shared with all of us.

    Thank you for reminding us all again what both these Presidents and Mrs. Roosevelt did for our country and the world.

    Bravo Mr. Burns

  15. The Roosevelts is what television should be, educational, thought provoking, and entertaining. I watched all 7 episodes. Thank you PBS and Ken Burns. I would like to watch it again. There is so much to learn from our past history! Arlene

  16. I loved the series, great writing and context, loved the pictures and films. Also, I have a new admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt, what an amazing woman! She also resembles my late grandmother in a way. I sure wish all documentaries were produced such as this. I was captivated and wasn’t interrupted by annoying commercials! Great job Ken Burns!

  17. For me, this series was mesmerizing. I’m 85 years old – I was 16 years old when President Roosevelt died – he had been President for I believe 12 of those years – and I have such vivid memories of those years. The Depression – the War – the President’s death. My best friend and I were lucky enough to have seen him on his campaign in 1944 at Soldier Field in Chicago. I still remember how he looked, smiling and waving to us. Six months later, he was gone. Thank you, Ken Burns.

  18. Simply loved it. The series kept me and my husband mesmerized the entire time. That is saying a lot considering my husband only likes watching the news and Dr Who. Really we truly did enjoy it and are looking forward to seeing it again.
    Keeping our fingers crossed.

  19. The magic of Ken Burns strikes again as we are left wondering how we’ve strayed so far from “the Greatest Generation”. I hope The Roosevelts finds its way into schools to educate and inspire the next generations.

  20. sadly, the videos are not available for streaming through the 29th. thanks for the misinformation.

  21. Every one is raving and I missed your series when will it be shown again? Thanks Eleanor

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