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Ken Burns' tired PBS landscape diminishes story of Lewis, Clark

Half an hour into Ken Burns' Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, I had three shocking, almost sacrilegious thoughts:

I'm getting tired of simple American tunes scratched out on historically correct instruments.

I'm getting tired of Sam Waterston, who is quickly becoming the Charlton Heston of PBS.

I'm getting very, very tired of Burns' camera's slow, worshipful crawls up the side of Meriwether Lewis' nose.

Seven years ago, like millions of others, I was glued night after night to The Civil War; had McDonald's offered a Happy Meal with Grant and Lee action figures, I'd have bought it. Four years later, Baseball moved me even though I'm not a sports fan, and I've gone out of my way to catch such lesser but lively bits of Burnsiana as Brooklyn Bridge.

Last season's Thomas Jefferson tested my faith: Without the rich reserve of photographs that added so much to Burns' other projects, he seemed to have made something like a radio documentary for TV. But I swept my doubts under the rug.

With Lewis & Clark, though, they've returned with a vengeance. At four hours, this trek through the West is occasionally enlightening or moving, but too often, despite all the topographical variety, it's just plain flat.

Making the film was obviously another labor of love for the passionate Burns and his co-producer and writer, Dayton Duncan.

Together they retraced the thousands of miles Lewis, Clark and their crew of four dozen traveled from May 14, 1804, when they left St. Louis, to Sept. 23, 1806, when they returned from the unimaginably distant Pacific Coast. Like the 19th-century explorers, the filmmakers endured blizzards, blistering heat and a plague of mosquitoes.

Along the way, they captured lovely footage of the Great Plains, the mighty Missouri River and hard-won Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, however, these nature scenes aren't nearly as eloquent as Burns would like them to be. What was surely a great adventure for Burns and Duncan is far less than that for the viewer.

To supplement these video postcards, Burns turns again and again to the same few period visuals: a handful of old maps and a couple of portraits of Lewis, who was the 29-year-old secretary to President Thomas Jefferson at the time he set out, and his dear friend William Clark, 33. Like the old fiddle melodies Burns loves to use _ and use, and use, and use _ these objects lose their charm.

Adam Arkin, reading from Lewis' diaries, gives this complicated man the right neurotic edge.

But if I have to hear the brooding Waterston impersonate one more president _ he was Lincoln in The Civil War and here repeats his Jefferson of last season _ I'm going to launch a recall.

Does it sound crazy to say, after all this, that Lewis & Clark is actually worth watching _ or, more specifically, listening to _ if you've got the time and if the subject interests you? The truth is, even second-rate Burns is still better than an above-average network miniseries.

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