'Dynasties': TV Review

An excellent non-fiction drama.
1/19/2019

The latest BBC documentary series is a riveting, intimate look at how animal families live over extended periods.

A lot of scripted dramas don't have the emotional impact and, yes, dramatic arcs, that are on display in the latest stunning natural history documentary series from the producers of Planet Earth II and the BBC, called Dynasties.

The five-part series, starting Saturday on BBC America (and its sister channels, AMC, IFC and Sundance TV), has the same stunning visual panache of Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, the most recent jaw-dropping natural history docs, but this time devotes longer periods of time to following families of animals in lavishly constructed dramatic stories that the producers were able to create because they spent so much time with them. The poignant (get the tissues ready), entertaining and informative doc hits on a lot of emotions. And on more than one occasion as you watch, this thought does arise: "Damn, all the males are total dicks." So, yeah, there's humor, too.

Narrated once again by Sir David Attenborough with his note-perfect delivery and patently British sense of understatement, Dynasties (or as Attenborough says, "DIN-asties") had teams of producers and wildlife experts spend anywhere between two and four years on different continents tracking groups of animals to tell a deeper, more structured story than the previous natural history documentaries, despite their impressive scope, had time to dwell on.

It's a different kind of storytelling and a different kind of viewing experience, though it would be hard to justify one over another — the breadth of both Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II is astonishing and what the multitude of cameras was able to patiently capture can't really be oversold. But in Dynasties, there's a little more breathing room to follow a pride of lions, for example, and learn the characteristics of each (they are often named by the naturalists who have been following them for scientific purposes), which takes a fundamental element of drama — introducing a character and letting that character grow and have the audience root for or against it — and allows for what can best be described as more intimate storytelling.

For example, in a typical wildlife documentary, a group of animals is followed and discussed, briefly, in their natural element in a story told at a certain remove. Instead of 10 or 15 minutes with a certain species before moving on, Dynasties gets to linger for a full hour, giving more depth to the events that unfold and letting them breathe a bit. Once the audience knows these animals' names — Charm, Sienna and Yaya, as is the case with the lions — the more immersive storytelling can be done. Viewers will have a more emotional connection to the story if the lions are followed for a couple of years, their travels and travails documented and condensed over time, as natural story arcs of rivals, dangers, etc. take on added emotional heft. 

In Saturday's first episode, "Lion," Dynasties follows the Marsh Pride of Kenya's Masai Mara and promptly sets the tone for the episodes that will follow — a narrative about how groups of animals work together (and against) others, with newfound focus on how personality traits and characteristics affect how the groups operate and thrive (or don't). It's fascinating. And "Lion" kicks off with a tailor-made twist — all the adult male lions who have defended the pride have abandoned it. (The BBC has actually followed the Marsh Pride for more than 20 years and used them in filming before, but never followed the group for this long.) The two mother lions, Charm and her cousin Sienna, are left to raise the cubs (Yaya is Charm's female cub), hunt for food and fend off any number of threats, getting exhausted in the process and putting the cubs and themselves in a more vulnerable position, all because the males took off. (As for threats, by the way, Dynasties offers yet more proof that hyenas are a pain in the ass to everybody.) On the downside, it's never explained why the male lions abandoned the pride or whether this is common. Every now and again that kind of narrative miscue pops up here, which could be related to how new these particular non-scripted directors, producers and editors are to this kind of longer-form dramatic arc they are trying to illustrate.

Anyway, this being a nature documentary, there are plenty of harrowing but riveting survival-of-the-fittest stories to unfold, made more emotional by the longer investment and focus that Dynasties provides in this format. That investment can also present problems. A long-standing truism of nature documentaries (and journalism) — the importance of not entering or influencing the story — becomes relevant when the pride comes across cattle that farmers are illegally letting graze on part of the Masai Mara where the filming took place. These farmers often use poisoned meat to ward off lions and keep their cattle alive and the crew is present when that kind of human intrusion into nature happens, and they can't step in — which not surprisingly leads to a tragic storyline.

That said, not everything in Dynasties is about survival of the fittest — in fact, some of the most powerful moments show just normal daily interaction between the animals, or how prolonged documentation can lead to a sort of palace intrigue, as the second installment, "Chimpanzee," so cleverly and fascinatingly details.

Dynasties is also unique in that it very effectively uses roughly the final 10 minutes of each installment to interview the crew (camera operators, naturalists, biologists and other wildlife experts) about their extended experience. It not only leads to insightful (and humorous) stories, but also provides evidence of how being embedded to this degree takes its toll when, say, you see the camera crew breaking down over the death of an animal they grew to love over the years or, conversely, crying with joy as they recall important breakthroughs like births or survival moments. It's just another element that adds to the rich storytelling in Dynasties.

There are moments, however, where the compression of time needs to be better illustrated (sometimes when Attenborough details the elapsed time — two weeks or a two months or the passing of a full season of weather — there's nothing on the screen to remind the viewer, so if you didn't hear it you missed it). Also it's sometimes unclear, as the directors and editors piece together these dramatic arcs, whether an animal's reaction occurred in that moment or was shot in some other period and spliced in for effect.

But mostly that kind of imposition doesn't matter because the story on the screen is so riveting. Dynasties cleverly puts two of its best hours, "Lion" and "Chimpanzee," on back-to-back weeks to introduce the series and it's a can't-fail decision. In the latter episode, we meet David — and yes, it's hard to look at a hulking alpha male chimp and think "David" as the high-definition camera is filling your living room with his presence, but "David" it is. With his mangled ear and furrowed brow, the camera catching his twitching limbs, David is the "character" who immediately gets the "Chimpanzee" hour off to a rousing start. As Attenborough describes it, David has been in charge for three years, which is on the outside of how long these Fongoli Chimps in South East Senegal will stand for one alpha male ruling over them. A revolt, Attenborough says with all the gravitas his 92 years can muster (so many of them involved in the exploration of the natural world), is afoot. David needs to watch his back. He's got Luthor to the left of him and Jumkin to the right. A dry season and a devastating fire have made life much harder for his group and now he's being eyed as vulnerable.

What happens next — well, you'll just have to tune in. It's as dramatic as anything you'll see in the scripted world, except that it's real and that makes it more heartbreaking, thrilling and astonishing as it unfolds.

It's too early to say where Dynasties will fit in the pantheon of natural history documentaries, but to shake up the presentation style was a smart move and it makes for emotional-impact television, something of an advantage over the more epic Planet Earth and Blue Planet docs, and that's its own separate feat.

Executive producer: Michael Gunton
Series producer: Rupert Barrington
Narrator: David Attenborough
Premieres: Saturday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (BBC America)