Life debuts tonight at 8 p.m. EDT on the Discovery Channel.
When the Discovery Channel rebroadcast the BBC's Planet Earth in 2007, it was one of the earliest examples of something that you just had to get an HDTV for. As I wrote at the time, the series had its flaws, but viewed in HD, it was a spectacle that had rarely been seen at such a scale on TV. It spanned the world, tossing us into the middle of the sorts of natural processes we city dwellers (and, hell, Westerners in general) so rarely see. And despite its rampant self congratulation, the series worked so well as a purely visual treat that the often clunky nature of Sigourney Weaver's narration (which only we U.S. citizens got and only in the original broadcasts) simply fell by the wayside. Planet Earth was all about watching moments of a big, amazing world, captured with the ultimate in technology and presented as beautiful little encapsulations of the brutish natural struggle.
So the easy thing to say is that basically everything that was right about Planet Earth is still right about Life and basically everything that was wrong about it is still wrong. There's a difference this time though: Even the standard-definition broadcast is a must watch. The technical personnel behind the series have learned how to create arresting images out of just about anything after their Planet Earth experiences, and Life (or at least the five hours I've seen of the 10-hour piece) ratchets up the heights and depths these guys are willing to go to to come up with dazzling television images. There's stuff here that feels more like it belongs in one of those periodic big screen films about the natural world that pops up every few years to critical acclaim (think Winged Migration), rather than in something that's being sold as a great series, but still just another TV nature program.
One element is going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of viewers (at least in the U.S. and at least until the DVD and Blu-Ray come out): Oprah Winfrey is narrating this spectacle, and she narrates it at her emphatic best. It's entirely possible that Winfrey knows no other way to read copy than by making it sound like she's about to give a bunch of housewives free things, but there are moments when she puts the oddest of emphases on certain words. It's often hard to escape the feeling that she's simply trying to turn the natural world into a talk show. Of course, it's also possible that the copy she's been given to read is just that bad. Particularly in the hour on mammals, the narration is so clumsily written that it just keeps reiterating the same points over and over and over, mostly about how ingenious mammals are at finding new ways to thrive or about how much of the natural world is centered around reproduction. (There's a weirdly schoolboy-ish attitude toward sex throughout the entire series, when, y'know, it is the reason so many animals - including us - do such bizarre things.)
There's also an unfortunate tendency to anthropomorphize pretty much everything that happens here. Outside of a few segments where the series realizes it doesn't need to lean too heavily on ascribing human behavior to creatures that don't possess it - a sequence where a baby elephant stumbles along looking for a drink before it succumbs to dehydration is a good case in point - strong, biological imperatives get reduced to the sorts of things people do at their most irritating. The nadir comes, perhaps, when a female stag beetle whom a male has climbed an 80-foot tree to mate with scrabbles away from him, and Winfrey playfully bleats, "What's this? A headache?!"
But, dammit all, this is simply a fantastic series to just watch. Where Planet Earth seemed often merely content to capture animal behavior that had never been recorded before (and Life frequently boasts of the same), Life takes those goals and ups the ante. There are some fantastically cinematic sequences here, particularly in the episode about insects, which reduces the entire world to the scale of bugs and makes it a strange, alien world. Sure, other works (including other documentaries) have done this, but not a one of them has pulled off anything so casually brilliant as a long pan in overhead shot above a colony of grasscutter ants harvesting a precious fungus, looking for all the world like something out of The Apartment (only with agricultural ants, I guess). The editing is similarly glorious, and even if it involves lots of shots intercut together in a sequence they didn't really happen in, I don't care. It distills the primal conflicts of the natural world to a series of beats and shots that feels surprisingly pure. (My favorite here comes in tonight's episode on reptiles and amphibians, in a tense, then very funny sequences, where a 1-inch toad attempts to evade a tarantula, high in the Venezuelan mesas.)
In short, even though the narration here is worse than it was in Planet Earth, the visuals are better enough to make the whole thing another piece of must-watch television. It also helps that the series is better organized than Planet Earth, with each hour taking us through various animal types, working its way through reptiles and amphibians, birds, insects, fish and mammals in the episodes I watched. (Future hours promise to check in on us primates and plants, in an hour that our UK cousins, who've already seen the thing, promise is surprisingly riveting.) There's a scale to each episode, an attempt to relate the common struggles of various animals across the globe and show how they differ within various climatic zones, how animals have adapted to face new challenges throughout.
And let's be clear about another thing: Life pulls fewer punches than Planet Earth did in regards to its science and its politics. The hour about mammals is unabashedly doubling as a warning about the dangers of letting climate change run amok (though the choice to always make this argument with shots of polar bears fighting over scarce food and swimming long distances is rapidly becoming cliche). Regardless of how you feel about this issue, it's refreshing to have the show make its point abundantly clear where its predecessor cloaked its feelings in, "And we should all love the Earth!" eco-friendly blather.
And, honestly, when I heard that the British original talked as often about evolution as it did, I never expected it to make it to these shores (where most networks never met a controversial subject they couldn't smooth over for better ratings) intact. Instead, after hemming and hawing for about ten minutes about "adaptations," Winfrey is spouting variations of the word "evolution" all over the place, even breaking down just how reptiles evolved into birds in the hour on birds. None of it is highly advanced biology, but it's a pretty good primer in the subject, definitely aimed at kids, and in the current American political environment, something that simple qualifies as almost a bold statement.
Regardless of how you feel about Winfrey or cloying narration, Life is worth a look. The scale of the thing is impressive, the moments the cameras have captured are instantly engaging, and the boldness of its take on the natural world and the way it got to be the way it is is refreshing. There's a temptation to write this off as Planet Earth, only more so, but I think that misses some of the piece's genius and some of the way that it makes the world we live in seem refreshingly alive all over again. This is a reintroduction to a world we all take for granted, a reintroduction too many of us need.