Television: Thoroughly Burned Out

The suffragists and New York City as docu-dozes

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America was built by people who came here to believe in something. America was built by people who came here for the right to believe in nothing. And two upcoming PBS documentaries are aptly paired not simply because each comes from one of the documentarian brothers Ken and Ric Burns (The Civil War), but also because both illustrate this paradox. Ken Burns' Not for Ourselves Alone (Nov. 7-8, 8 p.m. E.T.), the story of women suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, shows we would not be what we are without people fervently, sometimes blindly proselytizing--religiously or otherwise. Ric Burns' New York (Nov. 14-18, 9 p.m. E.T.) answers that neither would we be so without people--and a city--devoted to simple secular success.

The fight to win the vote for women was actually a kind of religious movement. Theorist Stanton and tactician Anthony transposed an evangelical fervor into a social one, moving, via moral causes like temperance (embraced by proto-feminists to stop domestic abuse), to a lifelong devotion to women's liberty and the vote, an objective neither lived to see achieved. The four-hour double profile does well by focusing a decades-long movement on this symbiotic friendship.

New York's focus is as sweeping as Ourselves' is intimate. "New York was based upon greed," says the late Brendan Gill in the 10-hour documentary. Unlike the colonies settled by religious persecutees (and persecutors), New Netherland was run by the mammoth Dutch West India Co. (Imagine Microsoft building Seattle.) And the city remained dedicated to the godless buck as it became British, then American--though not always for the best, as Jacob Riis' horrifying photographs of immigrant poverty powerfully illustrate.

The Burnsian style is full blown in both works: slow pacing, reverent interviewees, soothing strings and custardy voice-overs. It may seem harsh to call this sentimental and dull, but something in this pledge-drive-friendly aesthetic belittles the films' intense, contentious subjects. The suffrage movement was ardent and revolutionary; what we get sounds like an ice cream social.

This approach is even more egregious in New York, which renders a hard-core town as easy listening. Besides the trademark pans of photographs and prints, Ric Burns uses copious aerial shots of the city, glimmering, filled with butterscotchy light--but lifeless. Through seemingly Vaselined lenses, however, a picture emerges from both these works of the long, fruitful tension between evangelical idealism and secular mercantilism. Ken and Ric Burns have managed to sing America. If only they wouldn't sing it to sleep.

--By James Poniewozik