Like many people both here and abroad, I enjoy looking at pretty things. Sunsets. Tulips. Justin Bieber's bangs. Controversial or no, it is my firm belief that pretty things are nicer to look at than things that aren't pretty.
This is why I embraced high-definition television in its infancy, a decision that represented a triumph of consumerist abandon over fiscal sanity. During my circa 2005 hi-def honeymoon, I based my viewing selections on picture quality and nothing else. "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" in hi-def trumped "Deadwood" in blurry, square-head format. Whatever slapdash travelogue happened to be airing on the National Geographic Channel, a surprising early addition to my hi-def cable tier, trumped the Yankees. I spent most of that year in a jaw-ajar fugue state, transfixed by the revolutionary contrast and clarity.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I've waited half a decade for "Life," an 11-part Discovery Channel series whose central selling point is its high-definition sheen. While billed by the network as "the definitive exploration of the adaptability and diversity of life on earth, revealing the most spectacular, bizarre and fascinating behaviors that living things have devised in order to thrive," "Life" basically cobbles together a lot of cool-looking nature crap and attempts to fashion a coherent narrative out of it.
The series fails in that second task, but who cares? Make no mistake: "Life" is the prettiest show in television history.
Any outdoors auteur armed with a hi-def camera can capture majestic natural panoramas or glittering cityscapes for posterity. "Life," on the other hand, thrives because of its unimaginable level of detail. I can only imagine the superhuman patience and precision it must have required to document the quest of an inch-long poison arrow frog as it transports its tadpoles up a towering tree one by one. In that sense, it's easier to admire "Life" than to like it.
Still, admiration is more than enough. The series kicks off with the requisite cheetahs-in-the-Serengeti salvo, in which a trio of predators try to take down a big honkin' (not literally) ostrich. Did you know ostriches are twice as heavy as cheetahs and can totally crush skull with one casual back-kick? Ostriches rule. Anyway, I'd watch a "Cheetah vs. Ostrich" spin-off.
Lest you think "Life" squanders its money shot before the first commercial break, however, the show follows that gore-free flurry (all of the show's Darwinian predation is suggested rather than shown) with one magnificently detailed sequence after the next. We see a panther chameleon picking off a praying mantis with its suction-cupped super-tongue, a wily crabeater seal dodging killer whales by darting around a tiny ice floe and two horndog hippos dueling for primo turf during spring break in Zambia ("the male of the species has to earn the right to breed" -- don't we know it). Limiting each to around five minutes keeps "Life" moving along snappily.
But for sheer drama, each of these quick-hit segments pales beside one that documents a darling baby ibex attempting to avoid its dark destiny as an appetizer for a red fox. As I watched, and damn near fell off the chair in the process, my reaction went something like this: Oh no! Watch out for the fox, little ibex! Run, little ibex, run! Run! The up-and-down-and-across-a-ridge chase that ensued was considerably more harrowing than anything we've seen during the last three seasons of "24."
I only wish "Life" would've devoted 1/100th as much attention to its voice as it has to its face. Dues-paying members of Vibraphonists Local 1192 might be entranced by the plinky music that backstops the series, but for the rest of us it distracts from the visual poetry. Similarly, despite Oprah Winfrey's throaty cool narration, "Life" scrimps on the script, explaining to viewers what they're seeing in as straightforward and unimaginative a manner as humanly possible.
Take the aforementioned cheetah feast, which is narrated thusly: "The brothers haven't eaten for three and a half days. They are very hungry." Or take the sequence in which a stalk-eyed fly inflates its own head as part of a byzantine mating ritual rarely seen outside Daytona Beach. Here, "Life" tries, but feebly, for humor: "Females love a bug with really long stalks." Hey-o!
I appreciate that the folks behind "Life" want to keep the series accessible to dumbs and smarts alike, but such underwritten exposition dilutes the impact of the photography. There are two DIY fixes for this: you can watch "Life" with the sound muted, or you can hire a local stoner to give image-appropriate commentary ("Dude! That grasshopper is totally going to school on that grasshopper chick! Niiiice! Sexy time! High-five!").
Frankly, I hope the DVD release includes an alternate audio track featuring the latter. Kumar, call your agent.