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Ken Burns Hits One Out of the Park in PBS' First Day of Zoom Video Calls with TV Critics
July 28, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

A new day, a new age. America's public broadcaster kicked off the summer TV Critics Association (TCA) press panels Tuesday by Zoom video call, on the eve of PBS's milestone 50th anniversary.

Appropriately enough, the American literary critic and genealogist Henry Louis Gates and longtime NewsHour correspondent and anchor Judy Woodruff accompanied PBS CEO Paula Kerger on the call. It was the heart, soul, and familiar public face of PBS, though, Ken Burns (top, at TCA Press Tour in the summer of 2019) — the epitome of the phrase "American filmmaker" — who provided some of the hour's most emotional, heartfelt moments.

Burns, sporting COVID hair — think Shaggy Bob, long at the back and parted in the middle, could be forgiven for just phoning it in, but within moments it was obvious that the auteur behind The Civil WarJazzBaseballThe Vietnam WarCountry Music, and The National Parks: America's Best Idea is deeply shaken by present-day events.

There were moments when there was a catch in his voice as he related his lifelong relationship with PBS, starting with Brooklyn Bridge in 1981 ("Oh, kill me now," he recalled, in one self-effacing admission of unforeseen problems with his debut film) and his unswerving belief that, of all the American broadcasters, PBS — maligned, belittled and often taken for granted by a hostile political climate — best represents what he called "the intimacy and the power of us."

PBS, and by extension, his films, reflect what he called, "The national majesty...and contradictions, macro and micro.

"This is our daily mission...to serve every single citizen within reach of a television set, especially now."

Burns touched on the COVID-19 pandemic, "and the age-old virus that has been in our country since 1619."

It's been one of his life ambitions — drawing an indirect but yet undeniably clear line, as a filmmaker, between 1619, Jim Crow, George Floyd, and the street protests in Portland, Oregon.

Burns is juggling eight projects at the present time — four are in post-production, one of which, a two-part, six-hour biography of Ernest Hemingway, is close at hand.

Also in post-production are a four-part, eight-hour film about the life and times of Muhammad Ali, a two-part, four-hour series about the thorny and intertwined relationship between the US and the Holocaust, and a biography of Benjamin Franklin.

Burns also is mounting an expansive account of the American Revolution — his next large-scale, major project on the magnitude of The War and more recently The Vietnam War — as well as an environmentally-themed documentary about the American bison and the ongoing program to bring back America's arguably most iconic and large representative mammal; a long-form biography of the presidency and societal projects of the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson; and "our first non-American topic," a profile of the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci.

Burns is not superstitious, but he admits to ringing a cowbell every time the book has been closed on a major project. He demonstrated for those journalists in on the call, and it was easy to imagine him ringing the bell on his next-to-air project on the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The filmmaker behind Baseball knows the value of ending with a home run, and it was only natural that he hit one out of the park when TV Worth Watching founder David Bianculli, president of this parish, asked him if he was considering an 11th inning of Baseball.

He laughed gently, said he had a lot on his plate, and admitted that he once famously said he would only consider doing an 11th inning follow-up to The Tenth Inning, his 2010 follow-up to 1994's Baseball, if the Cubs won the World Series.

He wanted a second news hook, though, if an 11th Inning was to work — and along came 2020, and COVID-19.

The current season, played to empty stadiums, is off to "an inauspicious beginning," Burns said quietly. Several players with the Florida Marlins have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days, including more confirmed positive test results the very morning of Burns' and PBS' Zoom call. The positive results endanger the entire Major League Baseball season, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose day job is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci, a devoted Yankees fan — Burns favors the Red Sox — threw the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day at the Washington Nationals' home opener.

Burns would not rule out an 11th Inning one day, but for now, everything is in a state of flux — including whether he'll be able to send his school-age daughters to school in the fall.

"What are we going to do? You don't actually know."

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