‘Mankind: The Story of All of Us,’ yes
History channel zip-through of the big events is fun to watch
November 13, 2012
Most of us channel surfers have had the experience of stopping on one of those History channel documentaries about something like wheat or the alphabet that explain how these simple things changed the world. Full of piquant factlets and energetic reenactments, they usually make us stop flipping. We wind up a half hour older and slightly better informed.
If the channel took a dozen or so of those documentaries, put them in a blender and let the best parts rise to the top, it would have its new series "Mankind: The Story of All of Us." A six-episode examination of various technological or cultural leaps since the dawn of man, it feels in its first two episodes like a highlight reel of various important sporting events that fails to explain how they fit together. The barrage of seemingly random information will keep viewers entertained but probably won't help them pass their next AP History exam.
Premiering tonight at 9, the documentary zips in its first minutes from the big bang to the appearance of the first humans in Africa. The narrator, the actor Josh Brolin, describes what's going on as a group of actors in body paint hunt a ruminant on the savannah.
Talking heads pop up throughout to give what should be expert testimony. For example, a former Navy Seal named Richard "Mack" Machowicz explains that being bipedal allowed early humans to use such tools as spears.
Though many of the experts have academic affiliations, some of their credentials are sketchy. We aren't told why the NBC news anchor Brian Williams has any particular insight into whether the invention of writing was important. (He thinks it was.)
But the visuals and opinions keep coming. In quick succession, we learn that the harnessing of fire changed everything, then that the taming of dogs changed everything, then that the invention of agriculture changed everything.
Though each of those statements is probably true, the writers of this documentary — and those like it — need to find different ways of expressing that.
Important facts are repeated verbatim: We hear at least twice that earth is the only known planet with liquid water. And many of these insights will be familiar to people who have watched similar big-picture documentaries in the past.
The highlights are well chosen. We see a pharaoh who, in order to control the tin trade routes, leads his army in battle near Mount Megiddo, which, Brolin informs us ominously, is better known as Armageddon.
Just when one starts to notice a decided Eurocentrism — or at least Mediterraneocentrism — we jump to China to learn the story of the emperor who first united the country and started building the Great Wall. Ironically, after years of success in battle, he was killed by his doctors.
Fans of the History Channel's military documentaries are well served. A long segment describes the power, efficiency and all-around coolness of the Chinese crossbow, which was one of the first items to be mass-produced with interchangeable parts, thanks to China's invention of cast iron.
Sometimes we see something in a reenactment that we don't hear in the narration, leading us to suspect that the show is embellishing its stories. For example, it's unclear whether the leader of the Spartans saved the life of the leader of the Athenians in an important battle against the Persians.
The same segment credits the Greeks' victory to the use of the phalanx, then shows the warriors fighting mostly in individual combat.
Since only two episodes were provided for review, it's possible that the disparate segments will cohere by the end. But so far, the series equals the sum of its parts.
Those parts, fortunately, are good. Even if "Mankind: The Story of All of Us" turns out to be "Mankind: Anecdotes About All of Us," it will still be fun to watch.
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