PBS (Sun.-Tues., Nov. 23-25, 9 p.m. ET)
If you’re reluctant to devote six hours to a documentary on the American Revolution, remember it was only recently that PBS asked you to spend four hours watching Ken Burns’s film on Lewis and Clark’s 2½-year exploration of the American West. Since Liberty! covers a 26-year period (1763-89) in only 50 percent more time, it figures to be comparatively action packed.
Luckily, Liberty! has a lot more than math on its side. Producers-directors Muffle Meyer and Ellen Hovde take a serious but entertaining approach, supplementing archival visuals and scholarly talking heads (our favorites: Brown University’s Gordon S. Wood and MIT’s Pauline Maier) with costumed actors speaking the actual words of historical figures directly to the camera. Documentary purists may deplore this device as gimmickry, but when we listen to Philip Bosco’s charming, wily Benjamin Franklin or Donna Murphy’s passionate, dead-honest Abigail Adams, the early patriots and their long-shot cause come vividly to life. Although some of the actors tend to caricature representatives of the Empire, British historians are given adequate opportunity to recount events from the Mother Country’s point of view. Edward Herrmann’s narration, written by Ronald Blumer, guides us smoothly through the story. Forrest Sawyer’s introductions at the top of each hour are superfluous.