Untamed Americas

When I was in elementary school, I was taught what were supposed to be the basic concepts of how the natural world works, in the ways that would affect me most obviously. For example, weather patterns: the year is divided into four seasons, each roughly equivalent. April showers bring May flowers. And so on. There was only one slight problem: I was in the Pacific Northwest, where these things simply weren’t true. We had seasons, sure, but they were closer to “six months cool rain, six months warm rain, two nonconsecutive weeks of searing heat.” When I eventually went to college in Ohio, I discovered that all these things that I’d been taught weren’t just folklore to divide the calendar up, they were actually true! It was familiar and exotic, all at once. There was that great feeling of relief when, in late March, the snow began to melt and winter jackets could come off. Or that week in late August, when the overwhelming heat turns into comfortable warmth, almost forcing smiles.

That odd combination of familiarity with the exotic is part of what makes Untamed Americas feel fresh, despite its familiar form. It follows the Planet Earth model, bouncing around geography to focus on varied animals organized according to Mountains, Deserts, Forests, and Coasts. But around half the time, the animals feel familiar. The series opens with a wolf chasing a herd of caribou. A red-tailed hawk attempts to capture a squirrel. Herds of mustangs decide who can be included in their numbers. Baby elk cower, hiding from predatory grizzly bears. These are all familiar American animals, but their depiction indicates that there’s beauty and power behind that familiarity—they’re iconic.

Only about half of Untamed Americas involves the familiar, though. There are also scenes with more rare animals. One of those segments occurs within “Deserts,” focusing on the southern grasshopper mouse, an impressively mighty hunter. First, it’s shown ignoring scorpion stings, easily turning predator to prey. Then it fights a more dangerous enemy, a venomous centipede. Following its victory, it sits down and...howls? It’s hard not to be impressed, both with the mouse and with the ability of the show to get such impressive pictures.

Untamed Americas also spends a significant amount of time in Central and South America, finding less “familiar” animals. In perhaps its most incredible scene—one that the narrator breaks character and notes for its rarity—a jaguar leaps out of the Amazonian rainforest to attack a caiman in the river, successfully killing it.

Although Untamed Americas focuses on the more charismatic large mammals (perhaps a little too much), some smaller creatures are filmed in astounding detail. In the Andes, a newly discovered tiny bat, only 2.5 inches long, is the only creature that disperses the pollen from a plant that opens just six days per year. The cameras aren’t just there to capture it, they also capture the bat’s incredibly long tongue—half again longer than its body. There are even shots taken from inside the plant.

Some of it is technical, too. I’m not sure exactly how the recordings of the hummingbirds were made, but they show the beating of the wings and movement of the body far more than most other nature docs (I assume hi-def, high-frame rate cameras). This holds true for other things, like the rush of water into a canyon after a flash flood, with each drop depicted, or the tiny pieces of ice which comprise the snow a vole is tunneling in. This is going to be a series that showcases high definition televisions and blu-rays—even my lower-quality screeners looked sensational.

The American setting also helps differentiate Untamed Americas from Planet Earth and its ilk by allowing it to have a more, well, American flair. Narrator Josh Brolin isn’t David Attenborough, but that’s okay. He’s Josh Brolin, with a deep gravelly voice and a tiny bit of a twang. The writers do him no favors when they have him say “You need true grit to survive” at the start of the Mountains episode, but at least he doesn’t say “these sea lions are like a gang full of goonies” when a group starts to bully a cub—it’s just the one awkward reference to his filmography. Otherwise, his narration first the tone of the documentary wonderfully.

The series also feels a bit more American in its irreverence. In many docs, we may see animals start the mating process or even mate, but it’s usually called “mating.”In Untamed Americas, rain in the desert calls a group of toads to a muddy pool for what Brolin calls “a toad sex romp.” Hoe-down music plays as we watch. The music, too, isn’t simple orchestral stuff, instead it's guitar-based—electric or country-inspired in North America, Latin-tinged south of the border.

As the toad sex indicates, Untamed Americas also embraces humor. In one overtly comic scene, Brolin describes a penguin attempting to gather fish for his family in terms of an office worker on a commute—except that the penguin’s commute involves sliding down a cliff of poop and feathers, then traversing a beach crowded with annoyed, moving seals. Untamed Americas usually avoids anthropomorphism, but it uses it here for comic effect, instead of as some kind of natural truism.

The Americanism also adds an odd kind of triumphalism, with the narration often implying that it takes a special breed of animal to survive in rugged America, matching a national mythology about the American people. That’s an amusing quirk, but it slides into being annoying when Brolin says that the coasts of the Americas are more diverse than any other coasts in the world, as if it’s one of many, instead of the second-largest landmass in the world, and the only one than can be easily described that also stretches from the Arctic to the Antarctic (unless Euro-Africa is now a thing).

More interesting: although the narration describes some aberrant weather, like the ice sheets polar bears need to catch seals taking longer to appear, or a higher-than-usual amount of flash floods in the southwestern deserts, Untamed Americas doesn’t touch on climate change at all. Perhaps this is wise in that it allows the show to be marketed to a wider audience, and I do have to admit that it’s refreshing to watch a nature program that isn’t about how all these animals are doomed if we can’t convince the world to change its ways. It’s still a notable omission, though, especially after NatGeo's last big series, Great Migrations, acknowledged it.

Structurally, the show is a little too reliant on depictions of the hunt. Obviously these are some of the most dramatic and active scenes in a documentary of this style, but there are four or five of them in the forest episode alone. Still, these are relatively minor quibbles. Untamed Americas is utterly gorgeous, and filled with moments that are informative, amazing, and just plain weird. It’s as appealing as nature documentaries can get.

More TV Club