08/12/2010 08:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

National Geographic Channel Brings TV Critics Back to Real Reality

After two weeks of life in the fantasy world of Comic-Con and the Summer 2010 Television Critics Association tour, the networks of National Geographic provided an essential reality check for journalists Saturday during their two-hour session here at the Beverly Hilton.

As with PBS, which always schedules two days' worth of fascinating panels that generally include important news, cultural and historical programs, the cable days at TCA frequently feel like the best kind of college or graduate school experience. They also reflect the great diversity of television programming and often highlight the full potential of the medium. What a shame that so many critics attend these tours simply to cover the comedies, reality series and procedural crime dramas offered by the broadcast networks and leave before the smart stuff starts.

Memories of Snooki and The Situation at MTV's Jersey Shore press conference and Kim Kardashian and Kendra Wilkinson-Baskett working the Comcast Entertainment Group party the night before popped like soap bubbles in the grass during several National Geographic panels, especially one for three specials about the recent tragedies that have impacted the Gulf Coast: Witness Katrina, Explorer: Gulf Oil Aftermath and The Last Catch. Critics and reporters met Cheryl and Jerry York, a couple from Gulfport, Mississippi, about 70 miles from New Orleans, who remained in their living room with a video camera running as floodwaters during Hurricane Katrina filled their home; Kindra Arnesen, an advocate for Gulf Coast fishermen who lost her home during Katrina and watched her husband's livelihood as a fisherman fail in the wake of the British Petroleum oil spill; and Eric Tiser, a Gulf Coast fisherman who also lost his home in Katrina. He had not worked a day since the oil spill began and has not been hired to help with BP's Vessel of Opportunity program.

Their stories of personal loss and indefatigable hope in the face of grievous hardships, and the government's responses to same, were simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating – and a huge change from most of what had come before at TCA.

Critics also talked with filmmaker Tim Hetherington and author and journalist Sebastian Junger about their documentary Restrepo, which chronicles first-hand over a fifteen-month period the lives of soldiers at an especially dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, named for a soldier who lost his life there. (Restrepo was honored with the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival and will be seen on National Geographic Channel later this year.) They were joined by Major Dan Kearney (who has served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq) and Staff Sergeant Aron Hijar (who was twice deployed to Afghanistan).

Their stories of valor, loss and commitment were humbling.

"War is a terrible thing, it comes at a terrible cost, and people need to argue about it and work out a position and a way forward," Junger said when explaining why he and Hetherington decided to make the movie. "We wanted to show the experience of soldiers, because it needs to be recognized outside of that political conversation. But once we've done that, we hope that the film becomes, as I said, the starting point for the conversation that we all must have right now going forward in the years to come in Afghanistan."

"The soldiers don't get a chance to ask generals [questions] like, 'Why are we in the Korengal?' and neither did we," Hetherington said. "We don't give you any big picture. The film is totally inside the valley. It's like we're taking you on a ninety-minute deployment."

At the end of the session, Sergeant Hijar and Major Kearney were asked what they think people here in the States misunderstand about what the military is doing in Afghanistan.

"I think most people believe that we're out there fighting to attain some kind of adrenaline junkie mentality or attitude," Sgt. Hijar replied. "Some people can't grasp the concept of volunteering to protect others. Some people do it in the form of firemen or paramedics or police officers. They don't do it because they want to carry that gun. They do it because they're protecting something. I think the biggest misconception that I have with most people is they think that I joined because I wanted to be an army ranger or a sniper or anything else; that I wanted to go out there and kill people, and that was never the case."

"I would say that the biggest misconstrued fact is that the whole thing is a losing effort," Major Kearnery added. "I don't think anyone in America would be sending us out there if they didn't see that there was something at the end to be gained in the form of something better in the world. I spent 15 months in the Korengal Valley, and at the end of it I know that when people drive down Pech Valley just to the north, they're driving down a paved road with lights, a bank, and commerce now because of the sacrifices that my soldiers and myself made in [there]. Those are the things that I wish people saw rather than just seeing everything else that's going on; understanding that we are making a difference, however small it might be. And that we believe in our jobs, otherwise we probably wouldn't be doing them."