There's an air of slick comfort and ease to Edge of Existence that's really odd for a show exploring the lives of people who have never lived on land, or spent their entire lives in Middle Eastern desert. Intrepid journalist Donal MacIntyre's hardcore travelogue is so well produced, and MacIntyre himself so comfortable in odd surroundings that any sense of peril is replaced by everyday couch-surfing wonder. In the information age, when even the remotest areas have cell phone coverage, it takes a lot to make your average viewer gasp in awe, which is not to say Edge of Existence isn't awesome, just a victim of the times. Nevertheless, this anthropological exploration is fascinating viewing.
Four 45-minute episodes are split between two discs, ensuring sharp, gripping images of amazing stuff, as MacIntyre spends a week or two each with Bedouins in the desert, the Insect Tribe of Papua New Guinea, the Quechuan Indians in the Bolivian Andes, and the Bajau Laut, landless nomads who live in boats on the Celebes Sea. This is no PBS Globe Trekker, though superficial similarities appear. No, the Discovery Channel production goes that much further, as MacIntyre eschews nearby hostels and day-trips for living and working with his host families in more-than-intense conditions.
This is where the good news/bad news dichotomy comes into play, and in most ways it's all part of globalization and progress. When MacIntyre goes to spend time with the Bedouins, we find they've given up their nomadic ways to live in established homesteads (albeit ones in the middle of the desert). That's one romantic fantasy down, but when we find families trekking five days across the desert (from their own homesteads) to welcome the visitor with a feast, we discover they've gotten the news on their cellies. They later crank up the generator for a little satellite TV. Then again, life is still incredibly rough for these folks who maintain this lifestyle largely as a rejection of city life. MacIntyre accompanies two young men on a weeklong camel trek to the sea in order to trade dates for a few dried fish. He complains of a sore butt, nearly passes out from the 120-degree heat, and suffers what he thinks are 3rd-degree burns on his hands (ever hear of sunscreen, or a hat, MacIntyre?). But these travails seem barely to touch the good-natured, up for anything gentleman who seems comfortable, confident and always on the edge of bemusement, no matter what the situation.
MacIntyre, with a slight vocal lilt reminiscent of Werner Herzog's, also attends a wild boar hunt and midnight crocodile hunt with the Insect Tribe of Papua New Guinea. Throughout whatever risk or gravity these scenarios generate, MacIntyre ends up joking with his hosts - a homey touch that nonetheless removes some of the 'edge of civilization' sense of danger and wonderment we'd hope to enjoy. Nevertheless the Insect Tribe is one of those groups actually closest to the outer boundaries of modern existence, having only recently discovered alcohol.
Far from sea level are the Quechuan Indians, at about 12,000 feet in the Andes. During his stay, MacIntyre nearly knocks himself out carving salt from a massive salt-flat lake, one of the tenuous ways these people eke out an existence. For the dedicated salt harvester, desolate life looks like something out of Dr. Seuss's most harrowing flights of imagination, living in a tiny salt hut on a huge, nearly featureless plain, with only a battery powered radio for company. A connection to life as we know it is found (of course) within the easy laughter of one of MacIntyre's hosts, a teenage girl who longs to go to college and live in the city.
The amazing capper to this collection is time spent with the Bajau Laut, nomads born at sea, unable to even spend much time on land, and having no nationality. MacIntyre lives for a time on a ten-by-sixteen foot boat with two brothers and their wives and kids - over a dozen people spending all their time on a tiny boat, diving for fish and weathering storms at sea. It's exemplary of a series titled Edge of Existence, with all the primitive spectacles one would expect. Obviously the ethnocentric word primitive is inappropriate, since these families are simply doing what they've done for generations. It's even more inappropriate when one considers not only how close they are to 'civilization' - assimilation is never more than a simple choice and some adjustment away - but also how easy MacIntyre and his hi-def crew make the whole endeavor seem. As fascinating bite-sized glimpses into other worlds we'd never dare live in, MacIntyre's travelogues chronicle vanishing ways of life, and are marvelously interesting and full of personality - but somehow, life with the savages just ain't what it used to be.