SALT LAKE CITY, May 20, 2013—Metaphors of human life often superimpose the physical space in which it thrives. Discovery Channel’s epic miniseries North America uses those metaphors to brilliantly capture and package the extremity and diversity of the continent we call home.
The show’s creators have effectively put an entire continent into a movie with characters, drama, and emotion that the best fiction writer would be hard pressed to match.
It is entertainment, education, and motivation all packaged beautifully into some of the most awe-inspiring video on television. For weeks, Discovery has been promoting the series with magnificent, up-close, high definition shots of the continent’s tale that was “five years in the making.”
Discovery did not overhype it. North America’s two-hour premiere was jam-packed with detail—breadth and depth—of the world’s most diverse continent.
The story begins in the Rockies, with a gravelly voice explaining how life for a newborn mountain goat would be trying. Making his first footsteps down some of the most treacherous slopes in the world, the kid goat nearly drowns following his mother across a swift mountain stream.
“This is the life in the mountains of America,” the narrator declares somberly, giving way to victory. “The kid has faced his fears and found unexpected strengths.”
Kid’s and mother’s successful trek down the stony mountainside marked the close of a brilliant first scene in which the narrator, Tom Selleck, blended cogent descriptions with stunning videography and a compelling story.
It seems that nothing in the first two installments of North America went unconsidered. Selleck was the perfect choice for a video event so rich in detail and diverse in drama. His assuring voice could match almost any scene, from a mother gray whale’s heartbreaking loss of her calf to a pack of killer whales in False Pass, Alaska, to the touching and humorous mating dance of the manikins in Costa Rica.
Themes sort out the show’s content. Episode 1, “Born to Be Wild,” goes from Alaska to Panama, through Utah and across the continent to eastern Canada. If the choice to eschew simple geographic organization of the episodes is an attempt to stagger the imagination of viewers trying to keep track of the overwhelming volume and diversity of life, it worked.
But the thematic organization keeps you wanting more, and trying to guess where the show will take you next. Episode 2 ran immediately following the first. There are seven episodes in all.
Videographers of North America certainly displayed their mettle, the best indication of which is that viewers didn’t have to think about it. Every shot was smooth. There were appropriate longs shots to capture the vastness of the caribou migration in Labrador and the bison’s grazing grounds on the Great Plains, as well as ultra-close macro shots of tiny spiders dating and mating. Through it all, no one could reasonably say that they neglected an angle or missed a crucial shot.
“Spectacular,” “inspiring,” and “breathtaking” are not hyperbolic when describing the dozens of scenes. Thousands of olive ridley sea turtles emerging from the Pacific blackened by night’s darkness to lay their eggs must have challenged the patience of videographers. According to North America, these female turtles all come ashore only once, all at the same time. But the story wouldn’t have been complete without capturing the event 50 days later when the eggs hatched. Hundreds of thousands of two-inch turtles make their way back to the sea.
“For this…Band of Brothers, it will be their longest day.”
War metaphors tell of the struggle these newborns face as they attempt to cross unforgiving terrain on their way back to the sanctuary of the Pacific. Only five out of 100 make it, as lizards, crabs, and fowl devour them.
It is the story of the harshness of North America, and reflects the creativity of the show’s writers, who measured up to the tall order the videographers demanded.
The music, too, is a perfect accompaniment to the drama imminently unfolding. Mostly composed by popular artists like Bon Jovi and Radical Face, the score is triumphal. It has to be to effectively match the plot, which is thoroughly American.
Of course the show betrays its bias toward an “American,” (read, United States) conception of North America. Zebulon Pike, Lewis and Clark, John Wesley Powell, and later adherents to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny would have all heartily approved of the narrative. “Life on the frontier isn’t easy,” we are told in North America, but those who survive its severity will be the better for it. “Nature’s cruel indifference is a fact of life. It’s carved resilience into the frontier spirit and shaped our nation’s character.” Life and climate on the continent reflect the ideal Americanism: ruggedness, restlessness, and the urge to continue through adversity.
Those virtues often take the form of the martial. Bison bulls battle it out, prairie chickens fight over a hen. A young buffalo calf learns to fight back against a wolf pack bent on killing it. All are captured in stunning arrays of video.
From the martial to the motherly, North America is filled with touching moments, too. A scene of a black bear cub clinging to her mother, and a female prairie dog very riskily fending off a rattle snake to protect her pups remind us that “a mother will do anything to protect her young.”
Once the viewer adjusts to the magnificent pictures, a smorgasbord of information is on the offering. North America is full of facts that defy common knowledge. For example, though rarely seen by humans, there are over 30 thousand mountain lions in North America. The pronghorn (mistakenly known as antelope) are among the world’s fastest mammals, able to run at 60 mph for many miles. Bison, once on the brink of extinction, now number over 15 thousand. And the Rocky Mountains control the weather of the continent, helping to account for super storms in the east, tornadoes across the plains, and the barren thirstiness of the Great Basin.
It is a very well-constructed video, pedagogically, as well. Maps guide viewers around the continent, with place names clearly labeled. Other graphics are offered up as appropriate, like the thousands of paths of migratory birds.
Discovery has done a wonderful thing by supplementing the show with a website that all middle and high school life science students should frequent. Much of the content is online, with small video clips that explain how the videographers shot various scenes.
North America is appropriate for children of all ages; this is television that families can enjoy together and learn a great deal from.
They will definitely learn a great deal about life in North America, and maybe even a bit about their own.
Rich is a teacher and a soldier. In addition to writing the “Rich Like Me” political column at the Washington Times Communities, he is the author of Nine Weeks: A Teacher’s Education in Army Basic Training; Tunnel Club; and Not Another Boring Textbook: A High School Students’ Guide to their Inner Conservative.
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