Is it worth spending $1000 or more to watch a single TV series? I’m generally as tightfisted as the next TV watcher, but if I hadn’t already loosened my deathgrip on my purse strings to buy an HDTV, Discovery’s Planet Earth might just have been the show to convince me.
Made in 11 parts, this nature series–which debuts Sunday on Discovery HD–takes advantage of new camera technology and a seemingly limitless budget to capture scenes that (it claims, at least) have never been recorded before: a cameraman stakes out a freezing mountainside for days, for instance, to catch a snow-leopard hunt that has never been filmed before. The series’ focus is very broad–episodes include Jungles, Mountains, and Deserts–with a sweeping global range and an emphasis on the most extreme and visually dramatic examples of each habitat. It’s the TV equivalent of a coffee-table picture encyclopedia, not dense with text but staggering in its images, full of aerial shots and intense color. I brought home screeners for the Tuned In Jrs.–it’s about time the boys started earning their keep–and the episodes left them staring transfixed like opium fiends.
I say all this, by the way, without having actually seen the show in HD yet: Discovery sent the screeners on ordinary DVDs, which are spectacular enough on my crap 20″ 4:3-ratio office TV, but I plan to HDTivo at least some of the shows to get the full effect. The show will also replay on plain-old Discovery Channel for the HD-less but really, this may be the time to go out and make some Asian flat-screen merchant very happy. I currently have the Deep Sea episode playing, and as it pans over luminous invertebrates and phantasmagoric jellyfish, I have a feeling this show is going to be watched in a lot of college dorms, accompanied by a smoke haze, an exhaust fan blowing hard out the window, and a whole lot of Doritos.
So the show looks great: Are you actually going to learn anything from it? Yeah! I guess! I dunno! Whatever! What do I look like, a friggin’ zookeeper? I’m always a little amused when TV critics try to assess the educational value of documentaries in subjects they know nothing about. I learned a thing or two from Planet Earth, but what I really got from the show was slackjawed, uncynical awe, and that’s the most important thing a good nature documentary can deliver.
Still don’t believe me? Then it’s time for me to shut up and make with the pretty pictures: