BBC and Discovery changed the television world with “Planet Earth.” This nature documentary took us where no other cameras had previously gone. It captured incredibly rare and awe-inspiring natural moments on only the best HD cameras, and most important, it destroyed the stigma plaguing nature shows everywhere: that they’re boring and didactic. With the critical acclaim and popularity of “Planet Earth,” BBC and Discovery teamed up once more to bring us “Life.”
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“Life” doesn’t really differ much from “Planet Earth,” but why mess with a good thing? While “Earth” would center each episode in a stunning location (deserts, caves, etc.), “Life” allows for an in-depth look at unique plants and animals with each installment focusing on different types of life (future episodes are titled “Plants,” “Insects” and “Hunters and Hunted”).
Oprah Winfrey offers her voice for the narration, replacing Sigourney Weaver, who narrated “Earth.” Winfrey’s narration is subtle and not recognizable. It fits appropriately with the BBC/Discovery vibe — she doesn’t give out free stuff or promote a book club, which might actually be a downer depending on how you look at it. Those who were die-hard fans of David Attenborough’s calming voice on the UK version of “Earth” will be pleased to know his soft British accent has returned for the British version of “Life” as well.
“Life” follows the precedent set by “Earth” of having nothing less than absolutely stunning footage. The high-definition, slow-motion shot of a chameleon extending its long, sticky tongue to capture a praying mantis could be replayed at least 50 times before getting old. Also following “Earth,” each hour-long episode ends with a 10-minute short “Life on Location” detailing the efforts behind obtaining this spectacular footage. Showing the great lengths to which the crew went makes the series even more impressive.
“Life” attempts to narrow down the broad subject matter of “Planet Earth,” but it doesn’t exactly achieve its goal. The overarching theme of the episode titled “Challenges of Life” could be applied to any living thing. And so, especially in the first episode, the segments didn’t feel nearly cohesive enough. The premiere episode alone features bottlenose dolphins, cheetahs, killer whales, crabeater seals, tufted capuchins, flying fish, Venus flytraps, hippos, strawberry poison-dart frogs, giant octopi, chinstrap penguins, stalk-eyed flies and ibexes. Each organism could have had its own episode dedicated to documenting the extraordinary challenges it faces, so the few minutes each received was nowhere near enough.
Though perhaps that’s what keeps “Life” fresh and enticing. It’s clear the show will never spend an entire hour on something mundane; the alternative is a bombardment of incredible images detailing the fantastic phenomenon of life. “Life” definitely lives up to the precedent set by its original series, but after a success like “Planet Earth,” it doesn’t seem possible for BBC and Discovery to do much wrong.