The Discovery Channel’s “Serengeti” is filled with spectacular footage of African animals, filmed over two years in the wild. It is not, however, a documentary. It’s more like a six-part animal soap opera.
Seriously. And you don’t have to take my word for it: “It’s not a documentary,” said director and producer John Downer — although he doesn’t exactly admit that it’s a soap.
“We’re faithful to the animals’ behavior, and the animals’ behavior informs the storyline,” he said “It was a messy, complicated film because we wanted to tell it not like a normal natural history film.”
It is, instead, a dramatic reality show with animal actors. The man behind it — the man listed as the show’s creator — is “American Idol” producer Simon Fuller.
“I was thinking ... how could I maybe create a show that might just allow a viewer to have a different perspective of animals that might just encourage a closer connection,” Fuller said. “And, hopefully, encourage more respect and more care.”
“Serengeti” is sort of “The Real World” for animals living together and having their lives filmed. And having their lives edited into cohesive storylines by producers.
Downer disputed the idea that the storylines are imposed on the animals. The story arcs were “built” by following “characters” and incorporating “events that were life-changing for any animal,” Downer said. “We like to think the animals were telling their story because we didn’t force a narrative on them, but we took the narrative from them.”
The only thing missing is the “Real World” confessionals, where the participants sit in front of a camera and talk about what’s happening to them. Instead, the narration — by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o — attributes human feelings and motives to animals.
At one point, viewers are told that a baboon is not just lovesick, he “spends his days brooding on the injustice of it all.”
Do baboons brood about injustice? I don’t know. Neither do the producers of “Serengeti,” but that doesn’t keep them from attributing emotions to him.
“We would just sort of say, well, is this a significant story point? Is this something that’s happening or could happen to one of our characters?” Downer said. “And then that will be incorporated into the storyline.”
There are lots of characters ... er, uh, animals, so they give them names. There’s a zebra named Shani; a lion named Kali; an elephant named Nala, who’s dealing with sibling rivalry — we’re told — between her offspring.
There’s absolutely no question that “Serengeti” is gorgeous to look at. Filmmakers spent two years on a nature preserve in Tanzania and came up with all sorts of astonishing footage.
(While filming lasted for two years, the conceit of the series is that it’s a year in the life of the animals.)
And “Serengeti” is definitely fun to watch. You’ll oooh and aaah over the cinematography. You’ll fall in love with the animals. You’ll be devastated when some of them die.
You’ll roll your eyes when Nyong’o tells you that a female baboon gave that lovesick male “something to fight for.”
It’s silly when sportscasters tell you what athletes and coaches are thinking during a game — apparently employing their mind-reading abilities; it’s outlandish when Nyong’o tells viewers the feelings, emotions, motivations and thoughts of animals.
And as much as Fuller and Downer want us to believe that they’ve come up with something revolutionary, “Serengiti” is anything but. One critic compared it to old Disney nature “documentaries like the 1967 film ‘Charlie the Lonesome Cougar,’” which was sort of mean but not inaccurate. It’s sort of dorky.
But it’s also not altogether safe for young children, who are going to freak out when an animal “character” they’ve come to love dies violently.
“Serengeti” premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Discovery and Animal Planet; the first episode will air without commercials.