Ken Burns’ The War debuts on PBS tonight

Ken Burns’ The War, a 15-hour documentary about World War II, debuts tonight at 8 p.m. ET on PBS. It airs over seven nights: two or two-and-a-half hours a night this week, from today until Wednesday, and then three nights next week; on Oct. 2, it will be released on DVD.

The film “tells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns,” and “explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history — a worldwide catastrophe that touched the lives of every family on every street in every town in America,” according to PBS. Burns uses first-person stories from soldiers instead of interviews with experts, in addition to footage and still photographs.

It has been widely praised by critics as a “[work] of TV art so extraordinary, all you can do is be grateful” (USA TODAY’s Robert Bianco), “as elegiac and compelling as any of [Burns'] previous works” (The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley), “A monumental undertaking filled with moments of tremendous poignancy” (Variety’s Brian Lowry), and “a picture of the war so vivid and personal that any preconceptions you had about this topic being pretty much exhausted are swiftly cast aside” (The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan).

Before its debut, the series has faced controversy over its representation of soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds. New footage was produced and added to highlight the contributions of Latino and American Indians to the war after those veterans protested that the film underrepresented their contributions. However, representatives of the groups “insist that the new material should be part of the story itself, which focuses on the wartime experiences of four towns or cities in different regions of the country, … [b]ut that will not be the case,” The Washington Post reported.

In addition, depending upon your PBS affiliate, you may see a version with four words inaudible, because a war veteran saying the word “fuck” will clearly damage a child forever. The included words, Burns told The Washington Post, are “four incredibly appropriate words. It’s what soldiers in battle say, and not just during World War II.” Airing the show without the bleeps “could subject a station to a $325,000 [FCC] indecency fine if broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.,” the Post reports. Those words are “fuck,” spoken twice, “shit,” and “asshole,” Current reports; the first is used, according to the Post, “by former American soldiers as they describe the meaning of the common military euphemisms ‘snafu’ and ‘fubar,’ as well as some combat experiences.”

In a half-hour preview of the documentary, interviews with the filmmakers talking about its production are interspersed with scenes from the film:

The War [PBS]
Burns Won’t Reedit ‘War,’ PBS Clarifies and Fearing Fines, PBS to Offer Bleeped Version Of ‘The War’ [Washington Post]
PBS’s main feed of The War is the one with four bad words [Current]

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Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.