The Indestructible debuts tonight on the National Geographic Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern. Deadly 60 debuts Monday on National Geographic Wild at 10 p.m. Eastern.
National Geographic is debuting two new shows over the next two days. Both are perfect background material, aired in small half-hour chunks that could perhaps be even shorter – indeed, they'd probably both be better off in shorter bits. Both have premises that seem like they could sustain an interesting show, but are dragged down by filler.
One's dragged down a little more than the other. That's The Indestructibles, which premieres first, on Sunday. It's about people who get into situations that they shouldn't survive, but somehow they do. The form is straightforward: first, video of the incident. Second, talking head recreations of how the incident came to be. Third, experts are brought in to recreate the scene and explain how survival was possible. Finally, the survivor is taken back to the scene of the incident, for emotional catharsis.
The only one of these aspects that really works is the third, which feels like it should be the dominant point of the episode, instead of simply the climax. CGI is often utterly ludicrous when used in nonfiction settings, but here's it's used to great effect, clarifying the crashes that take place in both episodes, and in one of them, doing that so well that it totally changes the perspective of the man who was in the incident.
It's during these moments that I fully engaged with The Indestructibles and wanted more. How would you survive a helicopter crash? If the pilot managed to do just enough that its energy got diffused. Or an SUV could hit you at 55 mph and you might survive…if it was exactly the right angle. I even wanted physics calculations that I sadly didn't get (and I am not much of a physics or math person generally).
There's also not really anything wrong with the opening video necessarily – it's shocking enough to see a helicopter crash or a man crushed by an SUV, but to also know that they survived the experience makes the “holy shit!” nature of the collisions relatively guilt-free. After the 10th repetition of the video, though, it starts to lose a little impact.
The main problem is that the video, like a lot of the talking head stuff, is part of the bulk of the episode: the documentary-style recreation. It all seems mostly redundant – I've seen the video at the start, I know the person or persons survive, and I want to know how that happened. So taking 10-15 minutes to have people describe what we already saw in the video seems excessive. It's dragged down even further by the structural decision to treat the event as though we don't already know that the victim(s) survive. But we do know that. It's the premise of the show. It doesn't build tension, it just seems arbitrary, and distracts from the more interesting bits.
Deadly 60 has a somewhat similar problem. It's built around the travels of English naturalist and adventurer Steve Backshall, who attempts to get as close as he can to what he has determined are the 60 deadliest animals in the world. Each episode centers around his attempts to accomplish this with two or three animals in a similar location: the first in the Namibian brush, the second in Thailand.
Sometimes the animals and the searches for them are both interesting enough that it's simple, compelling television. Backshall and his crew try to get as close as they can to a lion, which involves joining forces with another naturalist who's got a whole plan and setup for attaching a radio collar to a young male lion. They find the pride, observe a hunt, lure the pride to their camp with a cacophony of recorded hyena calls, and target the male with a tranquilizer. Lions are, of course, big, charismatic creatures, and some of the footage is quite compelling.
The problems arise when there isn't quite as much footage, as with sequences on the leopard or the Tokay Gecko, where it becomes the Steve Backshall Vaguely Attempts To Impersonate An Animal Show. He puts on camouflage and tries to stalk like a leopard, or alternately, to demonstrate how good the Tokay Gecko is at climbing, he climbs up the side of his hotel. In both cases it seems like a distraction at best, and depending on your tolerance for Backshall, annoying at worst. Backshall talks quickly and gets very excited very quickly, and he isn't done any favors by quick editing that switches between his breathless narration of events as they happen and his breathless narration of the action from a studio later.
Still, when the show calms down and breathes a little, it can be fun. It helps that four of the six animals profiles are big cats, which, at least to me, are always compelling. The young Clouded Leopard, pictured above, steals the show with her exuberance and adorableness. However, as the picture above indicates, she's tamed, and in a zoo. If there's one thing Deadly 60 doesn't do, it's discuss the overall situations of each animal. Several months ago NatGeo sent me press materials for “Big Cats Week” which had information on how endangered each of the big cats were, with several documentaries focused primarily on this. There's nothing like that in Deadly 60 – they're just animals, impressive for their predatory skills.
In a sense, it's kind of a refreshing throwback to nature documentaries from before the “Oh shit the planet is totally fucked” era. It says “these are animals, and they're really cool!” But that refreshingness is somewhat depressing – I feel like I just want the animals for their escapist powers, and would prefer to ignore their plummeting numbers, and that doesn't feel right either. It does kind of go along with the show's general simplicity – it seems like it's more aimed at kids, though watchable by adults.
The Indestructibles: C; Deadly 60: B