Television Review: ‘North America,’ a Discovery Channel Nature Series

May 18th, 2013

Discovery Channel

North America Swift foxes are among the species seen on this seven-part series on the Discovery Channel, Sunday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Gorgeous nature photography has been abundant on television for a while now, so those who assemble programs from it need to have more than just a string of how-did-they-shoot-that images. A point of view would be nice. Or a narrative sensibility. Anything, really, that connects the oceangoing turtles, migrating butterflies and Labrador caribou, other than that they’re all just trying to survive, which hardly needs saying.

The first episode of the Discovery Channel’s latest contribution to the genre, a seven-part series called “North America,” makes sporadic efforts to deliver that extra something, yet never quite does. It has lots of stunning images, but if there’s a unifying concept, it is apparently going to emerge more gradually than a single episode allows.

Part 1, on Sunday night, often seems like a random collection of footage with flowery narration thrown in, which makes it the visual equivalent of the ambient sounds that you might coax from your stereo to help you wind down at bedtime.

The program begins in the Rockies, with film of mountain goats that looks as if it must have earned whoever shot it a case of frostbite. The learning curve for newborn goats is steep in several senses of the word. One young animal, shown navigating precipitous cliffs, seems barely to know what its limbs are for. Not long after, an effort to cross a stream swollen with spring melt almost proves fatal.

Then the program starts hopscotching all over, first to the Aleutian Islands, where the prize is striking and rather unsettling footage of killer whales as they gang up on a gray whale calf. The audience for this murder at sea is a group of grizzly bears on the shore, hoping the spoils will wash their way.

The episode, which has been given the unimaginative title “Born to Be Wild,” also checks in on tropical birds, sea turtles, wild horses and other species. Though there is not a human being in sight, the narration is intent on giving these animals’ struggles very human frames of reference, describing what the cameras are showing with language full of historical and pop cultural references.

The plight of a newly hatched sea turtle in Costa Rica gets a D-Day spin. “For this newborn and his band of brothers,” the narrator, Tom Selleck, says, “it will be their longest day. Only 5 out of 100 will make it through the next eight hours.”

And yes, what you see is a sort of reverse Normandy landing, the little turtles, which hatch in the sand, trying desperately to run, or whatever turtles do, to the water before birds or lizards eat them. How you feel about the analogy, especially this close to Memorial Day, is up to you.

The narration also tends to confuse “United States of America” with “North America.” In one stretch it superimposes a Hollywood rebel ethic on the entire continent.

“Burning in the American heart is a hunger to move, to leave it all behind, to head out, free and unanchored,” Mr. Selleck says. He’s talking about migratory birds, butterflies and bats. As detailed as the photography is, it’s surprising that you can’t see the tiny copies of “On the Road” that they have tucked under their wings.

The focus may sharpen in subsequent episodes. Part 2 is billed as being about how animals deal with extreme weather. And a making-of installment in June could prove most interesting of all.

Discovery’s news release notes a number of firsts that were achieved in the three-year filming process. The generic-feeling first episode doesn’t do justice to the work that went into the series.

North America

Discovery Channel, Sunday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Produced for the Discovery Channel by Silverback Films. Keith Scholey, executive producer; Huw Cordey, series producer; Tom Selleck, narrator. For the Discovery Channel: Christine Weber and Iain Riddick, executive producers; Kristin Wilcox, associate producer.

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