I watch television like it’s my job. This is a result of the pandemic; at least that is my excuse. Documentaries are my chosen genre, or as one of my friends said, “If a documentary has been produced, Molly has seen it.”
I have to make a distinction. Crime shows are not documentaries. My husband gets this confused, as I also have a liking for 20/20ish shows that do “document” things, but they are all of the grisly variety. Those I classify as entertainment, not documentaries.
A good documentary tells a story about something or someone that has a distinct and interesting backstory that most or all of us have not heard. A film about real people and their oddities, like Grey Gardens. Exciting and thrilling docs like Free Solo. I like stories, personal revelations, and tales of weird happenings.
There is a caveat, however. Some documentaries go WAY TOO FAR. I may be very unpopular admitting this, but Ken Burns takes things that could be interesting and beats them to death with details. I learned so much more than I ever wanted to know about the Roosevelts! And despite the fact that I have written some novels, there are things about Hemingway that I truly don’t care to know. The cats, fine. The cross-dressing, really?
A documentary should last about an hour. Maybe an hour and a half. Certainly there is no need for multiple episodes. We want the general idea, not the complete biography. Ken Burns gets so caught up in his research, and he takes months, maybe years looking into his subjects. Somebody needs to tell Mr. Burns that this is overkill. Ken, you can stop, really. We don’t want to know how long it took Eleanor R to learn to ride a bike (this may or may not have been in the docuseries from Burns, but you get the idea).
Letters written home. Letters from the front. Poems that never made it into publication. Musings about nature left in diaries . Existential angst. The history of the hometowns and the favored architecture of your subjects. Snow or rainstorms that caused local damage. Dead pets. Ken, you can leave those out.
Of course, this reveals much more about me, the tv watching dilettante, than Ken Burns, the scholar and filmmaker. But perhaps I speak for a few more people than are willing to admit that they, too, do not want to know as much about things as Ken Burns wants to tell us…