Worth Watching: BBC's Human Planet

04/22/2011 04:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2011

It's a slick idea: turn the classic nature-doc formula on ourselves. The result isn't, as one might expect, just another smarmy reality show. In the BBC's capable hands, humans get the same treatment Planet Earth gave natural phenomena and Life gave animals. The finished product, the eight-part series Human Planet, is as much art as it is documentary.

Tracking "the most remarkable species of all," as the trailer calls us, into insane situations, we see humans fishing on the treacherous cusp of Victoria Falls, scaring a full pride of lions off its meaty prey, and enduring a 60-mile trek through icy Himalayan passes just to get to school. We see, basically, men and women conquering seemingly unconquerable elements -- and sometimes each other -- as they vie for dominance and survival.

The storytelling is expertly done, with well-informed pacing, unobtrusive narration (courtesy John Hurt), and adept use of music and slow motion. Human Planet owes much to its crisp, color-drenched cinematography; "wow" moments happen every few minutes. Behind-the-scenes clips show how frustrating, and how gratifying, it must be to work on these globetrotting BBC productions.

To their credit, the filmmakers manage to portray tribal cultures in all their anthropological elegance while staying well this side of the noble-savage error. They also avoid deriding "modern" cultures. By showing humans as it did the animals in Life -- that is, through an objective, scientific lens -- the BBC all but convinces viewers to refrain, for once, from judging their own kind.

Though its earnestness has already inspired at least one enjoyable spoof, even the most misanthropic environmentalist should be able to muster a nod of regard to this ambitious series.

Airs on the Discovery Channel at 8 p.m. Sun., Apr. 24; available on DVD Apr. 26