North America: TV Review
9 p.m. Sunday, May 19 (Discovery)
Keith Scholey, Christine Weber, Iain Riddick
Discovery Channel’s latest brings the usual nature-doc drama — vicious kills and babies in peril — close to home.
For good reason, Africa and its wildlife have starred in countless nature docs — among them the recent Discovery Channel series Africa. Now the network sets its sights closer to home with North America, its first independently produced nature series, with breathtaking results. More than three years in the making, the project — with a 51-person camera crew — has captured not just the continent’s geologic and climate variety but extraordinary footage from the lives of animals, including behaviors never before documented. The filmmakers tracked species in 10 countries, traveling as far north as the Aleutian Islands and southward to the jungles of Panama and Costa Rica (technically Central America, but what’s a few miles and an adjective between friends?).
The seven-part series launches with a fast-moving installment capturing the sweep of species’ movements in the region, using aerial-view maps and simple graphics of migratory routes to striking effect. Touching down on land, the show moves in close as sea turtles emerge from the waves to claim a beach like troops landing at Normandy, and as a mustang stallion leads his harem and their colts on a search for water in the Utah desert.
But the most compelling nature drama usually concerns the babies. As subjects, they’re involving, not just because they’re adorable embodiments of pure life force, but also because of their vulnerability as easy targets for predators. The photographers are alert to a Rocky Mountain goat’s watchful gaze as her weeks-old kid learns to navigate the narrow ledges and cross a river. They’re there for the perilous migration through Alaska’s False Pass of a gray whale and her calf, with hungry grizzlies congregating above them on shore and killer whales moving in from below. One heart-stopping sequence morphs seamlessly from the capture and death of a caribou calf to the grateful wolf pups who will make a meal of it — a switch in perspective that exemplifies the power of the filmmaking.
How the film crew managed to reach some of the animals is in itself a story, one that a making-of episode will explore, promising to reveal close encounters with polar bears, bison, jaguars and, not least, Hurricane Irene.
Beyond the life-and-death scenarios, there’s abstract beauty in images of snowstorms, the aurora borealis and the 20 million bats that explode out of Texas’ Bracken Cave (home to the largest concentration of mammals on the planet). The opening installment’s aerial shots of the bats marks the first HD documentation of this phenomenon. Among other firsts: a complete hunt by wolves in Labrador and underwater footage of Kodiak bears diving for salmon.
At its best, the narration, delivered by Tom Selleck, is clear and unadorned, but it occasionally falls into purple patches of grandiloquence: A range of mountains is “bursting with the molten blood of the planet”; the mountain lion is “the shadowy icon of this continent’s dark heart.” A heavy hand prevails in the music cues, too, which can be cutesy or obvious.
Such emphatic accompaniment, in music and prose, is unnecessary when the images are so potent.The filmmakers’ perseverance and ingenuity have paid off with exquisite portraits of wild places that
are closer than we might imagine.
Airdates: 9 p.m. Sundays, May 19 to June 16 (Discovery)
Production company: Silverback Films
Sundance: On the Scene