Africa

Africa debuts tonight on Discovery Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.

You know how these big nature documentary series are supposed to go. It's been pretty much the same since Planet Earth. Dramatic music plays, with appropriate instrumentation for the region of the world. A somber and sonorous narrator, preferably David Attenborough but perhaps an American actor who can read off both interesting facts and imbue a proper sense of awe, explains what's going on sparse text. Something amazing or beautiful or brutal or surprising happens. The documentary takes a breath, so that you can process it. And then it whisks you away to a different animal within the same region or theme.

Africa is just like that, except it knows it's just like that. And it knows that you think you know that it's just like that, so Africa is gonna play with you and your expectations.

The opening few minutes of the “Kalahari” episode demonstrate how playful Africa is. There's a typical brief introduction and an intense montage of different animals in various states of action, set to vaguely African-sounding drum music. We eventually focus on a giraffe, a nice charismatic large mammal, exactly the sort of beast these documentaries need to maintain interest. Everyone knows and loves giraffes, right? We can use those as a stalking, uh, giraffe in order to sneak in some cool bugs and science facts.

This particular giraffe is old, with a somewhat craggy face. The narrator uses him and his aged wisdom to explain the territory, and show a particular tree that helps the giraffe survive. It's conventional stuff, although the guitar music has an odd sort of Southwest US feel to it. Okay, it kinda makes sense, it goes along with the “Kalahari desert” theme.

A giraffe challenger emerges. Aha. We're on even more solid ground now! We get to see the old male, filled with toughness and trickery, take on a rampant youngster in a traditional battle for male dominance. This happens all the time in these documentaries. Either the old bull wins, and we see the defeated giraffe walk away with the narrator saying “His time will come. But not this year.” or the challenger will win, and we'll see the broken old giraffe lying there, as the narrator somberly intones “He may last another season or two” and then perhaps invoke the Circle of Life or some other obvious cliché.

Except... that's not just deserty guitar music. That's full-on Sergio Leone-style spaghetti western music playing. Africa isn't doing “Africa,” it's doing a duel between gunslingers at high noon. The giraffes are pounding each other's necks with their head, in a demonstration of power that may look ridiculous, but the narrator is telling us just how much power goes into these attacks, so it's also instilling the proper amount of awe. Sure, the music is a little odd, but hey, we're seeing a cool giraffe fight. The young buck is going for unsubtle power, attacking the body directly. The old bull is trying to sweep the leg.

And then the young giraffe seems to win. He scores a direct hit, and the older giraffe falls to his side. The pace slows, and the narrator talks about how this is the final blow. We're ready for it now. It's going to be something like “He's had a good run, but he can't live forever.” Africa takes a moment and catches its breath. These documentaries have rhythms, you know, and when it pauses like this, it's because the scene is about to end. Circle of Life, etc., etc.

The camera shifts into super slow motion. The buck's head plunges down, directly at the neck of the old guy we've come to respect. But that neck dips, ever-so-slightly. The attacking head catches only air. Meanwhile, the act of dodging has given the old giraffe momentum, and his head flies down, then up and directly into the young giraffe's chest for a knockout. It's like a movie where the hero's totally beaten, but he's only just making his enemy overconfident. It's like a fighting game where, nearly beaten, one of the players pulls off an amazing Counter COMBO BREAKER and then the perfect special move to finish off his opponent.

Africa knows that it's like those things. Africa knows that it's a TV show, and it revels in its artificiality. It plays up those moments—and the giraffe fight is the first of several in “Kalahari.” And they aren't just moments of deception. A rhinoceros appears with a set of antelope antlers dangling from its horn to win a female's affections, and it works. The narrator says “She's clearly been won over by the bling.” After introducing the Red-billed Quelea, the most populous bird in the world, and showing us its chicks, we also meet a group of armored crickets marching on the nests. The camera is set low to the ground, and the music grows epic and dangerous, and the shot seems framed to be like Sauron's massive army of orcs marching on Gondor in The Return Of The King.

It takes hundreds if not thousands of hours to get some of this footage, and it gets edited down to the five most dramatic minutes. The whole setup is artificial. Africa never implies otherwise, which is part of what makes it fun. But the artificiality doesn't detract in any way from the core structure of the nature documentary. The fact that Africa presents the badass giraffe fight as a badass giraffe fight doesn't make the pictures any less impressive, or the facts portrayed any less true. Most nature documentaries are build around awe. Africa is as well—but it's also build around awesomeness.

Stray observations:

  • I had a temporary narrator on my screener. Apparently, Forest Whitaker is the narrator for the airing version. I have to assume that the narrated text is the same, however.
  • The most impressively shot section may be a wasp, digging through the dunes, then encountering a Goldenwheel Spider, which rolls away.
  • The documentary is very pleasant, in that no cute animals end up dying. Not sure if that's just how this particular episode shook out, or if it's a Discovery thing, or a specific decision.
  • Climate change is likewise unmentioned; however, toward the very end of the episode there is a line about “Just a century ago there were hundreds of thousands of [black rhinos]. Today there are fewer than 5,000 left.” On the Depressing Nature Documentary scale, Africa rates: Minor
  • There's an awkward rhino hookup. It's as amazing as it sounds.
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