I'm not exactly an expert on nature documentaries, but most of them seem to tackle fairly specific subjects: a certain type of animal, a particular weather phenomenon, a unique aspect of life in the wild. When there are documentaries about specific places, like the Arctic, or the African plains, it's usually somewhere that an American TV station believes will be exotic to their domestic audiences. Discovery Channel's "North America" turns the camera around on our (or at least my) own country, in the hopes of exploring the natural side of America's cultural melting pot.
The primary thing "North America" reveals about the land is how diverse it is. Although the episodes attempt to narrow their focus a little with titles like "Born to Be Wild" and "Outlaws and Skeletons", each one is generally free to hop back and forth across the country, from the icy upper reaches of Canada to the jungles of Panama. Along the way, the documentary looks at every creature from bears to bugs, as well as some asides about weather and plant life, investigating each subject through accompanying voice-over narration by Tom Selleck.
When tackling such a sprawling subject, and in such a sprawling manner, it's natural for the filmmakers to want to inject a little narrative backbone to help give the piece a sense of focus. Selleck's narration carries this burden, and of all the show's pieces, it's the most hit-and-miss. Each animal or bug has a "story," and the filmmakers' somewhat miraculous ease of access to tell each one of these little tales quickly seems a little unrealistic. There's no proof that each of these shots documents the same creature, and in my mind, the last thing one wants to do in a documentary is call attention to how manipulative the edit is. The lines written for Selleck are also routinely cheesy, relying on stereotypes about mothers and their young and the nature of America to help drive its points home (particularly dumb line, about a bison calf: "This young American has learned to fight back.")
On the other hand, even if there's a suspicion that some of the material is less than faithful to what happened "on set", the majority of the footage in "North America" is wonderful. It's hard to review a nature documentary, because a paragraph of me explaining pure nature visuals wouldn't be very interesting, but the crew get all sorts of wonderful footage from all over the area, in every weather condition imaginable. From the sheer, snowy cliff faces of the beginning of the first episode to the barren deserts of the third-to-last episode, there's hardly a shot in the entire documentary that isn't stunning.
As an added bonus, the second-to-last episode of the series (as well as the closing credits of each episode leading up to it) give us a peek inside the making of the program, applying the series' sense of drama to the making of the series itself. Given how great the series looks, this is a really clever idea: audiences will already be curious about the production, and the episode is no less informative about the particulars of North America than any other episode of the series, despite the usual melodrama of Selleck's voice-over creeping in. The last episode is a weaker "top 10" montage of places in North America, but it's no cop-out: at this point, the series has more than delivered on its promise to spotlight one of the most diverse areas on Planet Earth.
"North America" arrives in a standard 2-disc Blu-Ray case. The front cover has the promo image of a roaring bear, and the back displays two mountain goats playfully nipping at each other. The case is a non-eco case to better allow the user to see the episode listing on the inside front cover, and, interestingly, a list of the show's soundtrack cuts on the right.
The Video and Audio
Gaiam's 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation of "North America" does justice to the show's beautiful high definition photography. Vivid colors and impressive detail combine to create a striking level of dimensionality in the image -- there's frequently enough depth to feel as if you're peering into a cave, staring across a plain, or into a canyon. Some of the footage is sourced from slightly rougher or lower-quality sources, but as far as I'm concerned, that's to be expected in a program like this.
Audio is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that didn't quite impress me as much as I was expecting. The sound is generally dominated by Selleck's narration and a selection of rock music (including the Bon Jovi opening theme), and in general there are less examples of nature filling the soundscape than I expected. Nature sounds natural, for sure, and there are certainly moments when the track really brings the surround experience to life, but on the whole, the disc is more impressive picture-wise than sound-wise. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Two extras are included. Filmmaker audio commentary is included on all five of the standard episodes. Although these tracks are very informative regarding where and how they filmed the show, they're also on the dry side and are pock-marked with frequent gaps in conversation as the show moves through montage transitions and the like.
A much better extra is the inclusion of nature sound audio tracks, silencing Selleck in favor of the original soundtrack. Sadly, this option is only presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, but if the viewer would like to bask in the atmosphere of the show for a little while, they can always flip over to this option. A photo gallery is also included.
"North America" has some issues, struggling to whittle such a huge array of subjects and locations into individual episodes, and insistently inventing stories that take away from the experience. That said, the photography itself -- which must be seen -- and a fascinating episode focusing on the production of the documentary itself easily earn this set a recommendation.
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