Television

'Life': A Parade Of Funny, Engaging, And Sometimes Bug-Eyed Characters

A chameleon shoots its tongue out to catch an insect.

This chameleon is using his tongue to catch an insect. Inaki Relanzon/naturepl.com/Discovery Channel/BBC hide caption

itoggle caption Inaki Relanzon/naturepl.com/Discovery Channel/BBC

I didn't watch very much of the highly praised miniseries Planet Earth, and it wasn't until I sat down to watch the follow-up, Life (a joint production of Discovery and the BBC premiering on Sunday), that I thought much about why.

Nature documentaries, like classical music and great literature (not to mention broccoli), can struggle to overcome that sense of obligation you learned in childhood. They're good for you — and that can settle in your bones as the reason you're "supposed to watch them." And if that happens, it's not until you give them another chance to charm you on their own terms that you stop thinking about them as the equivalent of flossing: something you do for your own good, whether you enjoy it or not.

What's great about Life, which is just as stunning and beautiful as just about every TV critic on the planet is currently telling you it is, is that while it inspires awe and teaches about the world and provokes lots of interesting thoughts about instinct and purpose and collective action and the way species evolve, it's also very, very entertaining. It's just a good piece of television.

Why? Because it presents creatures (from insects to buffalo and beyond) as problem-solvers. And it doesn't take a very sophisticated understanding of the power of narrative to understand that if they're problem-solvers, then they're characters in a story, not just exhibits to be watched.

We've all seen plenty — plenty — of footage of various animals hunting each other. The pack of lions hunting the zebra, the heart-pounding music, the takedown, the devouring; it's standard fare at this point. And I think it's no accident that Life opens with just such a sequence, in which cheetahs hunt down an ostrich. (No, really.)

But instead of a grave, instructional tone that says Please watch with a deep if grim respect for nature, as this predator takes down its prey: This is the way of the wild, this chase is presented as an example of how animals adapt. The cheetahs are hunting in a group, you see, because that's what's required to battle an animal that substantially outweighs them and is entirely capable of kicking them to death. (Did you know this about ostriches? Now you do.)

And from there on out, Life is about the way living things solve problems. How to hunt. How to protect young. How to not get eaten. How to evade, how to intimidate, how to find shelter, how to bond, how to teach each other. It's a series of stories, not just a string of demo reels about What It's Like Out There.

A couple of clips, and the Oprah factor, after the jump.

Now, not only are the sequences in Life both incredibly beautiful and jaw-droppingly surprising, they're often very, very funny. I laughed out loud during a great bit about young monkeys learning how to break nuts open with rocks. It's edited with wonderful comic timing — and you couldn't ask any group of actors to be more perfect in a slapstick sequence in which, every time they put something down, it (or something else) rolls away.

Discovery has taken some heat for using Oprah Winfrey to do the narration instead of David Attenborough, who narrates the BBC version. I have nothing against Attenborough, except perhaps the simple fact that he's the expected choice, but I have to tell you: I say "phooey" to this particular complaint. Winfrey's narration, taken on its own terms, is melodic and appropriately calming. (She's not yelling, "PANTHER CHAMEEEEEELEON!" the way she does "JULIA ROOOOOBERTS!")

Moreover, if Winfrey's popularity (and her participation in promoting the special) leads to more people watching it, everybody wins. If it's a stunt to make people who might not otherwise watch this spectacular piece of television tune in, then ... that's the point. If she'd done a bad job, there might be a more compelling argument against her, but she sounds perfectly suited to the piece.

Besides, you'll be talking to yourself most of the time anyway. There are things going by constantly in this series that are just downright astounding, and I say that as someone who has seen a lot of things that were supposed to be astounding, and weren't. You'll find yourself saying things like, "Wow, that was a very, very intense frog fight those two frogs just had." Or, "You know, when a lizard and a snake are fighting, it's kind of hard to tell who's winning." And possibly, "Why does that frog insist on bringing up every tadpole in a separate puddle of water? Oh, because they'll eat each other otherwise? Yeah, that makes sense."

Watch it. Just ... trust me. Watch it. It premieres Sunday night on all of Discovery's various channels, and you'll want to use your best television. (If you don't have a good HD set, see if you've got a friend who will invite you over). It's great for kids, as long as they're old enough for non-gory footage of an occasional predatory takedown. It's funny, it's warm, it's fascinating, and it's the most visually arresting thing I've seen on commercial television ... maybe ever.

I'll put it this way: Here's a toad escaping from a snake.

That is the second coolest toad-escape sequence they have.

Not convinced yet?

I rest my case.

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