By Joe Queenan
July 08, 1996 12:00 PM

OVER THE CENTURIES, MANKIND HAS developed many cruel and unusual punishments: the rack, the Iron Maiden, the Super Bowl halftime show. But is there anything more sadistic than the long-winded documentaries that flood the airwaves at this time of year? Ever since Ken Burns won all those awards with his masterpieces about baseball and the Civil War, well-meaning TV programmers seem determined to drive the country completely bonkers with epic documentaries about subjects we already know by heart, or don’t really want to know.

Last month PBS checked in with America on Wheels, three hour-long episodes about the importance of the automobile in American life. Then TBS ran America’s Music: The Roots of Country, three two-hour installments about the importance of country music in American life. Turner Classic Movies continued the all-out assault with Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood, a five-part, six-hour series on European cinema. In each there was lots of vintage footage, a regiment of know-it-all talking heads and a plodding voice-over by a star who hasn’t had a hit lately (Kris Kristofferson, Hal Holbrook, Kenneth Branagh).

Were the series in any way entertaining? Sure, it was fun to see old shots of a plump young Greta Garbo before she went on her all-spinach diet, but how long can you stay interested in post-World War I Danish art films? And yes, there is something oddly fascinating about watching ancient public-service messages warning about reckless driving—James Dean is the star of the ad—but most of Wheels was devoted to experts telling us how the car revolutionized American society. Folks, this is not hot news.

Watching these documentaries was like being back in high school and having to sit through those USDA films about Our Friend, the Soy Bean. How could these shows be improved? Hire a narrator who sounds vaguely interested in the subject, unlike Branagh. Hire a narrator whose voice you can listen to for five straight nights, unlike Branagh. The best suggestion? Run documentaries on a single night and don’t include every snip of grainy footage ever shot.