Popular science is having a moment on television. Between Fox’s Cosmos reboot and Showtime’s nine-part climate-change documentary Years Of Living Dangerously, subject matters typically reserved for Nova and other PBS franchises are reaching out beyond tote-bag-toting “Viewers Like You.” Neil deGrasse Tyson may not boast the singularly direct communication skills of his predecessor Carl Sagan, but the new Cosmos is still a refreshing addition to Sunday nights, a visually rich survey of time and space that brings viewers to the stars—and vice versa.
Now joining Cosmos on Sundays, Years Of Living Dangerously helps a different kind of star descend in service of illustrating the connections between humans and the world around us. Unlike Cosmos’ relatively gentle game of connect the dots, however, this series’ intention is to jolt viewers into caring. It’s a curious prospect, one that suggests to Showtime subscribers, “If you’re not already concerned about the widespread effects of catastrophic shifts in weather across the globe, perhaps the Terminator, Han Solo, and War Machine will make you concerned.” It combines blockbuster talent and presentation with the human element that’s so frequently lost amid the mass destruction of its stars’ big-screen efforts.
This is a premise that results in some of the most surreal images to ever qualify as participatory journalism. Creators Joel Bach and David Gelber are both veterans of 60 Minutes, and their new show treats stories following Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford no differently than an investigation by The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. (Future installments feature contributions from the likes of Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl.) And so Years Of Living Dangerously presents scenes of Schwarzenegger bonding with wildfire-suppressing firefighters—who are reminded the former governor of California played a firefighter himself in Collateral Damage—intercut with Ford mounting his own Heart Of Darkness tour through Indonesia, snaking through threatened jungles while snarling about mythologically corrupt government officials. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the science go down, but the impression is that Bach and Gelber—alongside executive producers that include Terminator director James Cameron—couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to their message if it wasn’t coming from the mouths of the world’s biggest stars. If An Inconvenient Truth was a PowerPoint presentation adapted to the big screen, then Years Of Living Dangerously is a climate-change documentary reframed as an action movie.
Moments of levity between Schwarzenegger and his “hotshot” companions aside, the tone of Years Of Living Dangerously is dire. It’s meant as a warning, and it plays like one. The visual presentation in the two episodes screened for critics is stark, heavy on wide shots of deforestation and panoramic views of scorched North Texan landscape. When Friedman travels to war-torn Syria to examine the catalyzing effects widespread drought may have had on that country’s ongoing civil war, the photography subtly illustrates the many forms of a destructive human touch. But if the goal is to meld the story told by the data and the story told by the people, these two threads never fully mesh. Undermined by the man’s crusty persona, Ford’s quest to get to the bottom of ecologically devastating palm-oil harvesting is the source of a few unintentional laughs, as when he gets snippy with the Indonesian minister of forestry. More effective is Don Cheadle’s time in Plainview, Texas, a town where the solutions to and causes of extreme weather are all wrapped up in faith. Cheadle and the Years Of Living Dangerously crew aren’t there to condescend or proselytize; their main aim is to understand before they educate.
The question stands, like a rhetorical inquiry posed by one of the show’s celebrity narrators: “Who’s the audience here?” If the goal is to reach skeptics like the Plainview residents who visit with Cheadle and evangelical Christian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, there are certainly more accessible (if less prestigious) channels of distribution. If a viewer already believes that various human factors are spelling certain planetary doom, all the statistics and opinions presented within Years Of Living Dangerously will merely confirm those views. In some ways, the series appears geared for more indirect impact: Tucked away during a sleepy period of the Showtime schedule, it’s airing after new episodes of the network’s longest-in-the-tooth half-hour offerings, Nurse Jackie and Californication. Built on a blockbuster framework, Years Of Living Dangerously comes off more like a word-of-mouth sleeper, a documentary that’ll drop science on people drawn in by the promise of Harrison Ford berating a foreign minister like he’s a Russian terrorist who’s not welcome on Air Force One. There are worse ways to communicate this information—but there are more organic ones, too.