North America

North America debuts tonight on Discovery at 9 p.m. Eastern.

“What ties this together?” has become the most interesting question for distinguishing prestige nature documentaries from one another. The post-Planet Earth form has three guarantees: dazzling, perhaps unprecedented shots of wild plants and animals; and a survey of wide expanses of geography with only mild levels of education. Each individual episode will have a structure that keeps a variety of different forms: comedy, tragedy, action, inspiration, etc.. How those awesome pictures are structured to fit together becomes the biggest challenge of changing footage into a documentary.

At the overarching level, it's what makes the theme of the episode. Planet Earth focused on styles of terrain, like ice or rainforest, which was extremely effective at allowing a variety of different animals and scenes, but could give a geographical whiplash as you bounced from Siberia to South America. Still conceptual whiplash was a relatively small price to pay for good television, so it's understandable that other prestige docs, like NatGeo's Untamed Americas, would keep the structure. North America is different, though, in that it puts together its shots first, then finds ways to connect them. This makes the episodes more difficult to describe by title or simple concept—“Born To Be Wild”—is the first episode (and only one I saw), but the in-episode connecting tissue is stronger.

“Born To Be Wild” connects the bulk of its episode via the Rocky Mountains. After a cold open with some mountain goats in Montana, it really begins up in a corner, by the Aleutian Islands. From there it heads inland to Mt. McKinley, further south through the Rockies, and into the Great Basin between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, where it lingers on some Mustangs, before progressing further down into Panama.

North America does two things that make the connections feel stronger. First, it gives a good sense of movement on the wider map as it travels down the continent. The computer graphics used to depict North America are remarkably effective, particularly when showing the different terrain types surrounding the Great Basin. Second, it does quick surveys of famous places whenever it travels by them. When it gets down into the southwest United States, it bounces from Monument Park to Death Valley to the Grand Canyon, never spending more than thirty seconds on each, but giving a good idea of both scope and beauty. I find this approach more natural while watching, though I can imagine it making things difficult if I, say, owned the Blu-Ray and wanted to watch my favorite episode.

The second manner of connection that these docs need to build is between the events on-screen and the viewer's understanding. It's not just a thing to watch, but a thing that will be more interesting when contextualized in a way that viewers can understand. Narration is the most important component of this kind of connection, although music and editing are also involved. If you're like me, and are fascinated by what nature docs try to tell us about our own culture, North America is a treasure trove of animal personification and grandiose statements. That's not a compliment.

My favorite: at the end of the sequence focused on a herd of mustangs, the narrator (Tom Selleck, who's quite good) intones “America's enduring horse. They pulled the plows that broke the plains, and shouldered the burdens of the covered wagons. They gave the native American a fighting chance against the white man. They are as American as the land itself.” North America is deliberately trying to tie gorgeous shots of its wildlife in dangerous situations as symbolic of the colonial mythology of the United States, that the horses are notable primarily for their importance in our stories.

It's not the only time, either. When describing some bird migrations, Selleck says “Burning in the American heart is a hunger to move. To leave it all behind. To head out, free, and unanchored.” Maybe there's a sociological truth that Americans are more mobile than most others—the “America” of the show goes all the way to Panama, which complicates matters—but I'm pretty certain that birds and other animals go on migrations on continents that aren't North America. It's a meaningless statement in terms of nature, but quite revealing in terms of American self-perception. If this, like other Discovery docs, is intended to be distributed internationally, I'd be curious to know if lines like that remain in other versions.

North America suffers somewhat from not distinguishing itself from Untamed Americas, which aired less than a year ago. Both adopt a slightly less stuffy, more rock'n'roll tone (North America even uses straight-up popular rock songs with lyrics, to inconsistent effect) than other prestige nature docs, which is nice. But given the sheer range of possibilities of wildlife to show, it's disappointing to see that two of the six scenes that get a longer focus in North America are very similar to scenes from Untamed Americas: the mustangs fighting, and a wolf hunting caribou in Canada. Part of the reason may be that North America seems to limit itself entirely to animals; I'm not sure that any plant was even named. Still, this is a minor issue of comparison as opposed to a reason to actually dislike North America. It's got baby black bears, dancing birds, and a three-way battle royale between orcas, grey whales, and grizzlies, and it gets those right.

Stray observations:

  • “Never give up/you're an army of one” No, I don't think Bon Jovi is a good match for this kind of documentary.
  • Over-anthropomorphism alert! “The kid has faced his fears, and found unexpected strength. But he's already proven that he has what it takes to join the story of the continent.” That or the kid had tried to do something, failed initially, but managed to survive.
  • Climate Change In Nature Docs Watch: Although there's narration that North America has “Some of the most extreme climates on the planet” and mention of a drought, absolutely nothing else to indicate that this is anything but permanent.
  • A nice touch when it moves to Panama: there's a shot of bird claws stepping carefully, slowly, as Selleck says “places so unexplored, we know almost nothing about them.”
  • “Every mother knows, she'll protect and do anything to provide for her kids” says Selleck, a minute after a mother caribou is shown bailing on her baby during a wolf attack.
  • The best shot of the episode: a pelican flying in front of the Golden Gate bridge. The focus on this moment is amazing, seemingly better than even the human eye could produce. Would love to know how they got it.
  • Is Discovery working its way through each of the continents? Because I would down with that.
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