Amusing Monday: ‘Serengeti’ TV series focuses on entertainment

“Serengeti,” Discovery Channel’s recent groundbreaking series about African wildlife, has come under fire from some experts for the show’s over-dramatizing animal emotions and motivations. But if we can view these personal animal stories with a bit of skepticism, I think we should feel free to immerse ourselves in the magnificent landscape and life-and-death struggles of the animals. Stunning photography, captivating music and intriguing narration of the various stories provide high entertainment value plus a greater appreciation of nature.

The six-part series, produced by “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller, has made its mark as one of the highest-rated nature documentaries ever seen on television. The show recently wrapped up its first season, but you may find all parts available “on demand” from TV providers, or you can watch online with access to the Discovery Channel webpage. If you’ve seen the show, you might be interested in several behind-the-scenes videos. A second season of “Serengeti” may be coming, but I don’t think it has been announced yet.

“We’re not used to telling or hearing the stories of animals,” says Fuller in an explanatory video about the project. “I see pain. I see love. I see joy. I see suffering. I see anger. And I see happiness in animals, and it’s powerful.”

Director John Downer, an-award winning nature filmmaker, said three film crews worked in the field for well over a year, using all sorts of specialized equipment to capture intimate and intense moments on the plains of Tanzania. Hidden cameras, aerial drones and camera-stabilization platforms made the live action possible, according to an interview with Andy Dehnart of “Reality Blurred” magazine.

“In ‘Serengeti,’ there are endless moments of intimacy that you don’t normally see in a natural history film because we’re telling that emotional story,” said Downer in the explanatory video. “And there’s also things, really unbelievable dramatic moments, that I could never script, never write, because you never know they would happen.

“The reality of when you’re there, spending that long in the field with them, the stories come just when you’re least expecting them. And they’re always the ones that just blow you away,” he said.

Narrator Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her acting performance in the movie “12 Years a Slave,” grew up in Kenya and seems to share an intimate connection to the African landscape. She introduces the audience to both predator and prey and finds it worthwhile to root for both.

“There are no bad guys,” she says in the video. “There’s just guys trying to survive. And I think that’s really a beautiful dynamic to watch.”

We meet baboons, zebras, elephants, antelopes, gazelles and giraffes, along with hippos, wildebeests and buffaloes. We also meet some powerful characters among the predators: crocodiles, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas and jackals.

One thing became clear to me: Water is an important aspect of the drama. Both predator and prey, as well as rivals in family groups, must find water. That brings ongoing conflict at the river and watering holes that can dry up or turn to mud-laden traps.

Cinematographer Matthew Goldman said one of the biggest challenges was filming in the rain, even though a special housing was built for the cameras that ride along on stabilizing platforms on the sides of the film trucks. The rains provide for interesting footage, he said, but the crew was unable to shield the camera lenses from scattered water droplets. Keeping a lens clear was a task not without risks.

“My job is to jump out and clean the lens,” Goldman said. “When it does start raining, lions especially get very excited, so it can be quite nerve-racking when you are focusing on what you are doing … and the lions are playing and starting to get into this hunt mode.”

The emotional connection with the animals is enriched with an orchestral musical score. Vocal credits go to Lola Lennox, daughter of Scottish singer-songwriter Annie Lennox. The song “Wild Hearts” (above) is written and performed by singer-songwriter Cathy Dennis, who has written many pop hits including Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”

As I said at the outset, some wildlife experts are apoplectic about the manipulation that takes place to produce a compelling narrative story. The animals might be viewed as actors playing a role, and discerning eyes have noticed that sometimes a single character is augmented with multiple animals playing the role.

Sometimes the narration presumes the feelings of animals, which just might go beyond human understanding. Do animals really love their babies the way humans do? It is hard to say, but it is nice to think so.

“This is documentary as theatre,” writes Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian newspaper. “I’m not saying gritty realism is always a more appealing approach, but this all-out anthropomorphism sometimes reaches beyond what it can deliver, which is a shame because, visually at least, it’s a stunner.

“It’s all very well to smother animals in human emotions, but the animal world is brutal and cruel, and cozy reconciliations are few and far between,” she continues. “I could feel the manipulation happening as if a puppet master were making me dance, but the death scenes … had an impact. At last, ‘Serengeti’ began to carry me along with it. If this is entertainment, then at least it entertains.”

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