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Mankind: The Story of All of Us: TV Review

Mankind, the story of all of us Film Still - H 2012

The Bottom Line

A visually interesting and accessible whirlwind tour through history.

Airdate

9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13 (History)
 

Producers

Jane Root, Ben Gold, Julian Hobbs, Paul Cabana

History's ambitious 12-hour miniseries, narrated by Josh Brolin, re-creates key moments from human history and features commentary from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Brian Williams.

Josh Brolin narrates History's epic new six-part, 12-hour miniseries Mankind: The Story of All of Us, which re-creates key moments from most of human history (hunter-gatherers to WWII). The series offers up fun visual effects, from computer-generated images to well-crafted re-enactments, all at a dizzying pace. In addition to Brolin's narration, History has lined up a bevy of professors, writers and expert historians to flesh out the facts, as well as color commentators such as Anthony Bourdain, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Brian Williams, James Meigs and Henry Louis Gates, whose contributions help give additional dimension to the material.

To pull off yet another world history retread requires a rather fresh take, and what History gets right is shaping Mankind around not just the chronology of human development, but ideas and themes. In the first episode (in two parts), the series takes a look at early inventions that separated man from animals, before leading up to one of the biggest game-changers, the Iron Age.

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The phrase "game-changer" is probably used too often in the series, though not necessarily without cause. Almost every element of discovery by early man changed the trajectory of humanity: fire, cave paintings, animal domestication, warfare, religion, writing and so on. Though each chapter in the Mankind story picks a general area or people to focus on (including break-out individual stories to help, well, humanize the experience), it also floats around the globe illustrating parallel developments and global repercussions.

The series also brings in flashes of more modern times to help tie the stories together in a way that reminds one of a sidebar conversation had with a friend: mentioning how the Chinese used iron in their crossbows and standardized parts which revolutionized warfare, then showing American Civil War scenes to discuss the musket. Just as the Colt .45 comes into the picture, the episode seems to remember itself, and returns back to the Chinese.

Mankind nearly overwhelms viewers with facts, some which even well-entrenched students of history will find illuminating. And despite scattered battle scenes, the series has a PG feel to it, presenting the facts without reveling in their gruesomeness (perhaps not reveling enough, actually -- the ancient past nearly seems like an OK place to be instead of a generally difficult and terrifying one). By pausing on well-known cultural touchstones (the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Parthenon, the Great Wall of China), the series starts off in a familiar and accessible way, while still throwing in some interesting historical tidbits.

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There's plenty of history left out, of course, but Mankind's aim is clearly not to document every movement of man so much as the most important turning points in our shared cultural evolution. Though there are millennia being covered, some may find the material oversimplified or oversanitized, but it's still an engaging and appealingly presented overview.

Interestingly, there are many reminders in Mankind that our shared journey has oft been borne out of our disadvantages in the natural world. Though we have structured tools and built empires, we are still, in the end, to quote an old teacher of mine, "weak, mostly hairless and physically defenseless creatures who stand upright with genitals exposed." Oh, indeed, the humanity.