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Balancing Information With Entertainment: An Ambitious Miniseries Sometimes Has More Style Than Substance
on December 3, 2012
For good or for bad, "Mankind: The Story Of All Of Us" is the quintessential History Channel miniseries. In twelve episodes that span the globe, the show has broad ambitions that sometimes provide interesting facts and sometimes merely spectacle. It's a glitzy effort that is loaded with dramatic recreations and CGI effects and oftentimes seems content to be more entertainment oriented than educational. As actual history, one can't really hope to boil down the rise of civilization across the world to a mere 9 hours (without commercials) but "Mankind" gives it a go with intermittent success. This is not a text book lesson or a college course, though, if you're looking for a classic presentation. This is an ADD whirlwind across various cultures and time frames hitting on subjects both vital and somewhat arbitrary. The episodes don't slow down for an in-depth analysis of any particular topic, but race across time jamming as much content as possible into each segment. Its focus, by its own description, is on "Big History."
Made by the creative forces behind the successful series "America: The Story of Us," this new docu-series is stretched across 12 distinct episodes and 3 discs (in both Blu-ray format or DVD) for a total of nine hours and twelve minutes. The Bonus Features include a random selection of additional footage, but nothing in these choices added much value content for me. The show, however, does look terrific in the hi-def Blu-ray transfer which makes the most of the recreations (which get bolder and more battle-centric as the series progresses).
The episodes are as follows (each approximately 46 minutes): (1) Inventors, (2) Iron Men, (3) Empires, (4) Warriors, (5) Plague, (6) Survivors, (7) New World, (8) Treasure, (9) Pioneers, (10) Revolutions, (11) Speed, and (12) New Frontiers.
If you are familiar with contemporary History Channel programming, you are more apt to know what to expect with "Mankind: The Story Of All Of Us." Sensationalized and over-the-top, the program can present even the most mundane topic in an overheated manner. From an intro that has a mummy opening its eyes (a dubious choice) to early episodes that set tasks like iron smelting to an electronic dance beat and slow motion video, it's all about the presentation. And as the opportunity to create bigger and more violent dramatic recreations becomes available, the show never hesitates to plunge right in. If you watch the History Channel, this undoubtedly won't surprise you. If, however, you are completely unfamiliar with the History series format, I might suggest sampling an episode before making the full investment. My guess, this will either really appeal to you or it will really not.
Josh Brolin does the heavy lifting as the narrator, really emphasizing the importance of each new development. He virtually gasps with breathy anticipation as each new subject is ever more riveting than the last! The show's expert commentators vary in credentials, but seem camera ready and eager to participate in the spectacle as well. They include military expert Richard Machowitz (Deadliest Warrier), Dr. Mehmet Oz, Ian Morris and Patrick Hunt (of Stanford), celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, writer Sam Sheridan, Brian Williams (from NBC) and Jason Meigs (Popular Mechanics).
In the end, "Mankind: The Story Of All Of Us" is easy enough to enjoy as an entertainment program. But I don't know that it fully succeeds at its proposed goals. You want pure science and history, this isn't it. You want a glossy and well made intro to topics that might be of further interest to you, this might be an effective overview. What you get out of this one is directly proportional to what your expectations are going in. Overall, about 3 1/2 stars for me. KGHarris, 12/12.