North America, the visually scrumptious new seven-part documentary series premiering tonight on Discovery Channel, is in many respects a worthy successor to such stunning past Discovery offerings as Life, Africa and the multi-award-winning Planet Earth. Culled from footage compiled over three years by filmmakers who journeyed from the frigid tundra of Canada to tropical rainforests in Central America, the network’s first independently produced natural history series offers a dizzying survey of our “continent of extremes,” captured in state-of-the-art digital imagery that exploits a diverse range of new technology.
Tonight’s premiere opens with a very family-friendly scene as a mountain goat delivers her kid some two miles above sea level in the snowy, wind-whipped Canadian Rockies, then tries to teach the newborn how to navigate the treacherous and fragile ledges of their vertigo-inducing winter home as they pick their way down the mountainside on their way down to find food in the valley. We’ve scarcely gotten mom and kid down the slopes and across the rushing streams when — bang! — Tom Selleck’s narration whisks us away to another part of the Pacific Northwest, where ravenous grizzly bears are looking for their first big post-hibernation repast along a seashore. They watch hungrily as a pod of orcas separate a whale calf from its mother and drown it (in a not very family-friendly scene), before the spare blubber washes to the rocky shore to feed the bears, who start to dine but then, whoosh, somehow we’re in the deserts of the American West, where wild stallions are fighting for dominance in the Utah Desert.
I should explain that I’ve only seen the first of these seven episodes, but frankly, I’m still trying to crack the code. To be sure, there is absolutely never a dull moment in this first hour, but the high-energy mix of biology, history, geology, meteorology and geography that keeps coming at us relentlessly occasionally pushes the viewer to the brink of (glorious) visual overload. North America is not a series to tune into if you’re looking for a big-picture exploration of this subject matter, because it rarely takes time to breathe as it leaps — sometimes clumsily, like that little mountain goat in the opening scene — from one big moment to the next.
Taken on its own terms, however, this documentary thrill ride offers plenty of undeniable rewards, and this first hour sped by before I even knew it. Fans of nature films will find much to enjoy here, even if they may wish for more time along the way to savor some of the highlights.