Thursdays at 9pm on Discovery
Rarely does a programme come along that is based on an idea so simple that one is surprised it hasn’t been made before. But the Discovery Channel’s latest documentary series, North America, is one of these programmes. Produced by Huw Cordey, whose credits include Planet Earth and South Pacific, the three-part series is the first natural history programme to focus entirely on the vast continent of North America.
If it seems perplexing to you that such a project hasn’t been attempted before, it’s perhaps worth remembering just how vast North America is, and indeed how much time is required to tackle a continent of such enormous variety. It is one of the few places on earth, after all, that features almost every type of habitat and climate, a rare place that despite human habitation also receives some of the most destructive weather on the earth.
Unfortunately for the crew that made North America, in the time that it took them to shoot the series — more than three years — National Geographic shot, edited and released their own series on the continent, titled Untamed Americas, which is unmistakably similar, and also worth tracking down.
Yet in spite of the similarities, North America is still an astonishing achievement—an enthralling series that takes viewers on a journey from the sub-zero Canadian tundra to the tropical rainforests of Panama, to the forests of Belize, and then to the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.
Highlights from along the trail include breathtaking footage of a pelican flying in front of the Golden Gate bridge, battling stallions and one disturbing scene in which a team of orcas are seen drowning a grey whale by forcing it under water.
What the series does best — and, indeed, better than Untamed Americas — is the way in which it ties all of the various segments together. The editing is tight and fast paced, but the tone and the narration never cease to shift seamlessly along with the footage. Some scenes are little pieces of anthropomorphic comedy, whereas others have been compiled to startle, dazzle or excite viewers.
As was the case with Planet Earth, music is also a key part of the series—though here we’re more likely to hear a few bars of a pop song than a flurry of brass and strings.
For instance, during a scene in which a group of prairie dogs celebrate having avoided being eaten by a snake, something appropriately jovial is heard; whereas, to accompany a particularly powerful shot (perhaps footage of a roaring grizzly bear or a stallion rising on its hind legs) we might hear a popular rock-song, such as Born to be Wild or something insufferable by Bon Jovi — i.e. anything by Bon Jovi.
Needless to day, the music isn’t always used to great effect: some songs make North America seem like an extended advert for T-Mobile or HSBC. But it’s hard to fault what’s taking on place on screen. Many of these scenes are exclusive to the series. That is to say, they are unprecedented occurrences that have never been captured on film before. And while North America may suffer slightly from it’s extremely fast pace (presumably it has been cut this way to appeal to viewers who are used to a diet of Michael Bay and Mach Three commercials), it’s hard to deny that it captures the most magnificent shots of this vast continent of extremes.