Life: Series Premiere

The one thing I really want people to take away from it is the sense that individual animals have individual struggles.

Mike Gunton

For the gecko, this isn’t fun. It just looks like fun.

— Oprah Winfrey

“In life, there are no guarantees,” narrates Oprah Winfrey. But in Life, you know what to expect. Premiering on Discovery Channel 21 March, the 11-part documentary series features stories of survival and death, instinct and chance, offered up in dramatic high-definition images, time-lapsed and slowed down and elucidated by Oprah.

Produced by Discovery and the BBC, Life is breathtaking in the same way as their previous collaboration, Planet Earth. Shots of stalk-eyed flies and Brazilian pygmy geckos, and are stunningly close, while those of ibexes on Israeli mountainsides and Komodo dragons on Indonesian beaches are deliriously long. Some you’ve seen before, many you’ve never heard of. And they’re all working hard, every day, to get by. As Oprah says, the millions of species who inhabit the earth face a struggle to survive, “one demanding extraordinary ingenuity, extraordinary adaptability.”

Each Sunday’s installment features two hour-long-episodes (Winfrey narrates the U.S. version; Sir Richard Attenborough narrated the British). The series begins with an overview, “Challenges of Life,” then commences with stories organized by types, the first being “Reptiles and Amphibians.” To show it all, Life makers have put in their own work, summarized in press-released numbers> some 70 operators carried their state-of-the-art cameras — miniature, super-stabilized, and underwater, high-speed cameras that shoot 2000 frames per second — to every continent over 3,000 filming days. They waited for hours and days to get scant minutes of astonishing footage, for instance, a waterfall toad falling and falling from a tree to escape a snake, his sticky, strong hands grabbing a branch at what seems the last second. Oprah helps you feel the awe: the species has not, she notes, become suicidal, but has instead “mastered the art of bailing out.”

You might also expect this: as the pictures are breathtaking, the efforts to dramatize them can be, alternately or at the same time, grand and trite. So, when a tarantula approaches a seemingly unprepared pebble toad (who “weighs less than a paper clip”), Oprah and the soundtrack music shape your response. “It looks like curtains for the toad,” she observes, who’s making its way over a Venezuelan mountaintop, until it “turns itself into a bouncing ball,” bop-bop-bopping down a mountainside, accompanied by boppy orchestration. As you’re feeling relieved, awed, and happy inside, Oprah makes sure you understand the significance of what you’ve just seen: this bouncing ball routine “has never been filmed before.”

It’s likely that most of the series’ events have never been captured in quite this way. Fish fly. Brown tufted capuchins break open nuts with rocks (a process that takes days, and planning and training — the looks on their faces as they set to work are mesmerizing). Common basilisks demonstrate why they’re also called Jesus Christ lizards, skittering across rain forest water surfaces with arms outstretched. A Namaqua chameleon in the Namib Desert is feeling too sluggish to chase after beetles, who seem to taunt her, zigging close and zagging away as if knowing she can’t run after them. But, Oprah sets up (in a tone perfectly wry) “She doesn’t need to run. She’s a chameleon.” With that, the lizard flicks out her prodigiously fast tongue and grabs up a beetle. This is what chameleons do. “Reptiles and amphibians have made an art form of surviving in the most extreme habitats on earth,” Oprah sums up. “If there’s a way to carve out a niche in some desolate ecosystem, they have done it.”

Again and again, the series’ drama is premised on the simple “rules of the wild,” which are: “Find something to eat, pass your genes along, and above all, don’t get eaten.” Each eating scene is structured as a dramatic conflict and really, might have been set up from the perspective of either hunter or prey, but you always know whom to root for (Yay, pebble toad! Boo, tarantula, or again, Go, Venus flytrap, poor bug). The mating scenes range from “businesslike” (lizards meet for a one-off on the hot Arizona sand) or wondrous. Grebes, monogamous diving birds in Oregon, entwine their necks and then conduct a “jubilant dance,” over their freshwater lake’s surface, mirroring one another’s movements like ice dancers, a way of saying, Oprah translates, “We’re together.”

The sea kraits, snakes living off the South Pacific Island of Niue, meet underwater and the male encircles the much larger female. They twist and writhe, the camera looking up from below so the blue sky is visible beyond the watery surface. The female then heads off to find a cave for her eggs. Her journey is long and thrilling, through darkness and up into a shimmery air pocket. She leaves the eggs and never comes back. Six months later, baby snakes take first breaths, eggs shells poked open and falling away like beat-down heavy plastic wrap.

Such absentee parenting is unusual in the series, which showcases parents it describes as “extraordinarily committed.” The strawberry poison arrow frog, who live in Central American rain forests, are less than an inch long. One mother, seeking a safe place for her five tadpoles, carries them one by one up a hundred-foot tree, depositing the babies in separate, teeny pools inside bromeliads (flowering plants). Just as you’re feeling impressed by all mom’s work, maybe even feeling inclined to say “Aww,” Oprah adds, “If they don’t get private rooms, they’ll eat each other.”

The series thus presents the “rules of the wild” in ways you’ll recognize. Animals are both very unlike and very like humans. You can marvel and gasp, and you can nod and empathize. The series doesn’t push to hard for the latter (it’s not March of the Penguins), but it does suggest that humans aren’t so superior as they like to think. All of these species have adapted, usually brilliantly (save for the caiman crocodiles, who apparently live much as their ancestors did, back with the dinosaurs). Resilience and perseverance are key to life, certainly, but, Oprah says, “The only way to survive is to change.”

RATING 8 / 10