Serengeti documentary series review: Soap opera with an all-animal cast
This is the documentary world's equivalent of an out-and-out commercial entertainer, but it ends up working somehow
There seems to be a new wave in wildlife documentaries. Earlier this year, we saw Dynasties, the BBC documentary that chose to tell stories of individual families of endangered animals in a cinematic way, complete with drama, action, humour, and even romance. And today, the same channel, Sony BBC Earth, will premiere with Serengeti, which the opening credits call: "A dramatised story based on the real lives of Africa's most charismatic animals."
True to that description, the storytelling is very dramatised, perhaps even too much so. These new wildlife documentaries aim to entertain as much as educate. In the case of Serengeti (set in that region in Africa), the education is entirely incidental and the focus is squarely on the entertainment. The difference between this and Dynasties is apparent even from just the animals they choose to focus on — the earlier show was on endangered species, while this one makes no bones about the fact that it is about "the most charismatic."
Creator: John Downer
Narrator: John Boyega
Serengeti is the documentary world's equivalent of an out-and-out commercial entertainer. This is borne out, not just by the way the story is narrated, but also the camera angles used (plenty of point-of-view shots, especially in hunting — read: action — scenes, which also feature generous amounts of slow motion), and the loud, insistent and jarring soundtrack.
This last was the most problematic for me. Yes, the storytelling is simplistic, and the anthropomorphising of these animals a bit too ridiculous at times (a baboon is depicted as pining for his ex, complete with sad, moody chorus singer going "Aaa Aa Aaa"). But I was willing to overlook that since it's clear this is not a series meant to be taken very seriously. It is meant as entertainment and I was willing to accept it as such and treat it the way I would a masala film. However, masala films too need to know when to hold back. Background music that loudly underscores the sentiment is one thing, but what when it becomes counterproductive and takes you out of an actually emotional moment? That's a definite no-no and it happens far too often on this show. If they had even just used instrumental music, it may have still passed muster, but the makers go a step too far with the singing and the lyrics (narrator says a cheetah has to move her cubs to safety, we see this happen, and the soundtrack wails, "moving on"). The sound mixing seems a bit off also, with the music often drowning out the narration.
The narrator, credited appropriately as the storyteller, is John Boyega of Star Wars fame. On screen, we see him represented by a vulture that flies around the Serengeti, sees all this drama unfolding and tells it to us. The narration is entirely in the first person, with Boyega talking about 'our land' and 'us'. This takes a little getting used to (Dynasties, narrated by David Attenborough, though it follows a similar cinematic narrative, is in the usual third person), but it is quite effective. It is also a nice choice given Boyega is of British-Nigerian background. There's a bit of meta-commentary here — Attenborough, the white man, talks of the animals as 'them', while for Boyega, who has roots in Africa, it's 'us'.
The story itself, though it starts off a bit shaky in episode one, gets quite absorbing. The stories, rather, since there are several, all centre on family and parenting, interestingly enough — a subject that provides endless drama. And unlike Dynasties, which focussed on one animal family per episode, there are several story threads in parallel in each episode here. Some of these threads intersect at times as well. So Serengeti essentially has a soap opera-like structure. That might be a better comparison than masala movie, come to think of it. Even the overbearing music fits that profile (though I do hope they tone that down in the next such documentary). And much like those soap operas, this show too feeds on our sympathy and curiosity to keep us hooked. Thus, though I was unimpressed at the start, and almost wrote it off after the first 10-odd minutes, by the end of episode two, I was quite taken in by the series, the negatives notwithstanding, and truly wanted to see where it goes from there. Alas! We only got screeners of the first two episodes. I guess I'll have to wait and watch the rest of the series on television this week because I simply must know what happens to all these animals.
(Serengeti premieres tomorrow, September 9, at 9 pm on Sony BBC Earth, and runs all week long)