Hemingway - PBS

"Hemingway" airing on PBS.

At the risk of sounding like Jacqueline Susann, sometimes too much is not enough. The latest effort from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, “Hemingway” (7 p.m., PBS, TV-14, check local listings) weighs in at six hours over three nights. After watching it, you’re still left hungry for more and pondering questions unasked and ideas unexplored.

The sections divide rather neatly. Monday recalls Ernest Hemingway’s Midwestern youth, service in World War I and his rapid rise to become the preeminent American author of the postwar period. He seems to live several lifetimes (and escapes several deaths) all before reaching 25. Tomorrow night’s episode, “Avatar,” witnesses Hemingway trying to live up to his self-embroidered legend, and Wednesday concludes with “The Blank Page,” about the publication of one last acclaimed book (“The Old Man and the Sea”) and his decline into illness, depression and suicide.

The series does a good, maybe too good, job offering a re-re-revision of the Hemingway myth. As “Hemingway” makes clear, he had been dismissed as self-parody as early as the 1930s. In the decades since his suicide in 1961, feminists and others have dismissed his “toxic” manhood.

In “Hemingway,” Irish novelist Edna O’Brien is called upon with great frequency to explain the tenderness and sensitivity of his characters’ words and actions. Other passages and private correspondences reveal a taste for androgyny and gender role-playing.

As always, Burns assembles an august panel of writers and narrators, including Peter Coyote, featured in many of his films. Jeff Daniels provides the voice of Hemingway and Meryl Streep, Keri Russell, Mary-Louise Parker and Patricia Clarkson offer the voices of a succession of wives.

In addition to O’Brien, novelists Abraham Verghese, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mary Karr, Tim O’Brien, Akiko Manabe, Leonardo Padura and Tobias Wolff discuss their debt to Hemingway’s unencumbered prose. Of them, only Llosa lets loose and calls out Hemingway when he thinks he’s truly terrible.

In addition to more dissenting voices, “Hemingway” could use more younger participants. Just because Hemingway’s manly man style went out of fashion does not mean it went away. It would have been instructive to talk to a writer like Sebastian Junger (“The Perfect Storm”) or the folks who founded Vice, to name a few.

There are plenty of warts-and-all conversations in “Hemingway.” It does not shy away from racial and anti-Semitic attitudes that came all too easily to a white man born in 1899. As a husband, critic, colleague and literary rival, Hemingway could be cruel.


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Kevin McDonough can be reached at kevin.tvguy@gmail.com.