"Bears Of The Last Frontier" debuts tonight on PBS as a part of the series Nature. It will air at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 7 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.
As part of its ongoing Nature series PBS teamed up with conservation ecologist and biologist Chris Morgan and award-winning filmmaker Joe Pontecorvo for an extensive, three-part documentary focused entirely on the various bear species currently living in Alaska. For a year and a half, the two traveled over 3000 miles across Alaska'a vast terrain to shoot hundreds of hours of footage that was eventually whittled down to three, eye-popping hours of bears, bears and more bears.
Though the rest of the series travels through numerous pockets of Alaska — chosen specifically for the fact that all three North American bear species (black, brown and polar) happen to live there — the first of the three parts focuses solely on the group of brown bears living in one spot on the state's peninsula. Here, a group of males, females and young cubs have all just emerged from six months of hibernation and are beginning the process of putting back on some of the 50% of their body weight they've lost over the winter. They're also beginning the mating process all over again while waiting for the salmon to start their annual trek down river and provide a potential bounty of food. Morgan also noted that the amount of available food in this part of the peninsula has upped the population of bears in the area tremendously, so much so that he coins it "the Manhattan of bear country."
The filmmakers smartly utilized their two greatest assets to impressive results: Morgan's impressive knowledge of and excitement about bears and his Pontecorvo's breathtaking skill behind the camera. Alaska's tourism bureau would be wise to negotiate a way to use Pontecorvo's spiraling aerial footage of snow-capped peaks, zigzagging rivers and swaying grasses, shot from nearly every imaginable angle. In one moment we were peering down on two cartoonishly cute cubs roughhousing on a rocky hillside before the camera splashed underwater to peek up close at the swimming salmon getting pawed at by hungry grizzlies.
And if the more serene and picturesque moments weren't enough to woo viewers into a three-hour date with bears, the filmmakers captured some truly heart-pounding moments, too. Over the months they were camped out alongside the enormous animals, they were mostly ignored but did manage to have a few tense brushes with their fuzzy subjects that made for exceptionally thrilling footage.
An integral part of the show's watchability is Morgan and his almost breathless narration of the bear activity unfolding around him. His sheer love of the animals combined with 20 years of research makes for the ideal travel guide. He became as much a part of the documentary as the bears he's following, while still keeping the focus on the animals he's devoted his life to studying. Being able to see him antsy and claustrophobic inside his rain-soaked tent or anxiously frozen when a mother bear and her cubs move threateningly close, posited the viewer one step closer to the world he's in. Combined with its ambient, cinematic scoring, the show expanded greatly in form from the traditional style of wildlife documentary where an omniscient narrator dictates over images of fuzzy, wild things.
Speaking of wildlife documentaries that have come before, there is the related issue of Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, about grizzly bear aficionado Timothy Treadwell's love of getting dangerously close to bears and the eventual price he paid for it. Outside of the more obvious differences in format and style between the documentaries, the two bear enthusiasts at the center have hugely varied approaches and backgrounds. Morgan is an educated ecologist with degrees from several schools in the UK and a current teaching position at Western Washington University in the States while Treadwell was more a self-proclaimed naturalist and amateur filmmaker who was reckless and driven by unchecked emotion over his love of the bears he followed. Meanwhile, in Bears Of The Last Frontier, Morgan is clearly cautious, respectful and hyper-aware of how to behave around his potentially dangerous subjects.
Even for those who don't consider themselves nature buffs, Morgan's documentary — an open love letter to bears and the state of Alaska — is one that serves the form in the best possible way: reminding viewers how strangely similar we can be to the animals we share our planet with and how striking the differences between us can be, too. While it can get a little slow in moments, the visuals are beyond striking, the subjects are fascinating (and, at times, just plain adorable), and the guide is one who fills the viewer with an honest sense of giddiness over the wildlife drama taking place around him.