Human Planet debuts tonight on Discovery Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Human Planet, a loose sequel to previous Discovery and BBC co-productions Planet Earth and Life that moves the series from zoology and botany into anthropology, crosses the crucial bar for any sort of cable TV documentary series early and often. This is to say that the miniseries is positively stuffed with “holy shit” moments, wherein the people on screen are doing things most of us, ensconced in comfortable easy chairs, watching this stuff on HDTV, could never possibly dream of doing. There are at least four or five per hour in tonight’s two-hour debut (featuring people who live in mountainous habitats and around rivers and oceans, respectively), and the moments of astonishment keep coming in next week’s hour on those who live in the Arctic. It’s a great series to pop on and goggle at.
Is it the equal of its previous counterparts? For the most part, yes. The main problem with the series is that the approach that worked so well with Planet Earth and Life for animals and plants feels a little scattershot when applied to actual human beings. This is to say that each hour offers a wide survey of the globe (or, more accurately, the parts of the globe where people still live in a state of mostly pre-modern ritual, though the three episodes screened also make visits to the Swiss Alps, the coast of Spain, and Manitoba), but where that wide survey worked for animals, allowing the production to get in and get out after relaying the necessary facts and showing off the necessary stunning footage, it often feels a little lacking when people are at the center of the story. We just start to get to know someone—say, a heroic boy chasing vicious monkeys from his tribe’s crops or a man paid to trigger avalanches to keep his village safe or a young man who’s headed out on his first whaling expedition—and then we’re cutting away to something else entirely.
Insofar as this approach keeps those “holy shit” moments coming, it’s effective. But the Discovery Channel airings (which have been cut, somewhat, from the original BBC airings) have cut everything so much to the bone that there is a sense of always wanting more. Or, put another way, at the end of “Rivers and Oceans,” the series takes over 10 minutes (the most time it’s spent on anyone) to tell the story of a Tibetan father and his two children, walking a treacherous frozen river so the kids can get to school, a journey of 50 miles that will take six days if the trio is lucky. Given time to spread out and actually tell its story, it automatically becomes the most arresting segment of the two-hour premiere, blending “can’t believe someone has to put up with THIS!” moments like said father nearly falling through the ice and recovering with a laugh with nicely universal moments like a mother waiting for her kids to be gone to wipe away her tears. Given the extra time, it becomes a nicely moving and, yes, human portrayal of that first day of school everyone’s familiar with.
This is not to say that the shorter segments are without worth. There’s certainly something to be said for wanting to know more, and there are more than enough that are over just as soon as they should be. But when the narrator (a generic Mr. Voice on screeners sent to critics; Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs for everybody else here in the States, about which more later) intones that a certain event took weeks upon weeks or even months to happen, there’s always a sense that the story might have been better suited by giving a sense of just how much time has passed, instead of just having the narrator’s words be enough. As an example, that story about the young whaler (which is impressive solely because his method of killing a giant sperm whale—the largest toothed whale in the ocean—is to jump out of a tiny boat with a pointy stick, which is something I’m pretty sure I never want to do) glosses over a lengthy battle with the whale that took EIGHT HOURS. Now, granted, the audience for graphic whale fights is probably small, but the miniseries’ method of showing just the start and very end leaves something to be desired. A similar problem arrives in a segment about a funeral held by Buddhists high above the zone where there would be enough plant life to perform a cremation (since Buddhists do not bury their dead). The funeral—and the method for removal of the body—are both intriguing enough to need a little more room to breathe, room the miniseries is loathe to give them.
But this is the best kind of problem for a series to have: If the audience wants more, that means that’s what’s there is pretty uniformly good. And Human Planet, at least in the version I screened, is frequently stunning, easily the equal, if not the better, of its predecessors. The miniseries is especially good at finding the many different ways that people LIVE while simultaneously finding the tiny, universal moments that still link us together, like a father grinning as his children gobble up the fish he risked his life to catch or that mother wiping her tears out of her eyes. This focus on raw humanity also makes the “behind the lens” segments, where the series pauses to brag about how awesome it was to capture all of this footage, much more palatable. Tonight’s “Mountains” hour concludes with footage of how the cameramen captured an eagle’s point of view for a segment on hunters who use eagles to capture foxes and rabbits. Seeing the cameramen strap a camera on a young eagle is one thing; seeing what seems like the whole village turn out to see what it looks like for their eagles to hunt from the eagle’s point of view (for the first time ever) proves weirdly poignant.
I’ve glossed over the narration—often the biggest problem of the Americanization of these series—simply because Discovery is, for some reason, not making the Mike Rowe versions of the episodes available. (It’s entirely possible this is just because the network didn’t have time, since he was just added to the series this past week.) Rowe’s good enough at narration on his own series that if he just reads the script as written, the series likely won’t be hurt by his presence. If there’s an attempt to turn Human Planet into the ultimate Dirty Jobs episode, however, then this could get very torturous indeed. So take all of the above with a grain of salt.
But even if Rowe’s narration is torturous, the series would still be plenty impressive on mute. As always, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are lots of great visual touches around the edges. The subtitles float in and out as people speak, like added flourishes around the edges of the frame. The camera captures these people from interesting and new vantage points. The colors of a crystal blue lagoon or a white mountainside are heightened and as pure as they can be. And the best thing about this are all of the many people, living in fascinating and intriguing ways or in ways that seem unfathomable to those of us surrounded by creature comforts. Human Planet, even with its faults, is a wonderful reminder of the fact that we live in a big, beautiful world, spilling over with almost endless variety.