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David Attenborough Meets ‘King Lear’: ‘Dynasties’ is a Darker, Adult Look at the Animal Kingdom
January 17, 2019  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Remember Blue Planet II and its moments of wonder and grace? Dynasties is not that. This new David Attenborough-narrated nature series — it first aired in the UK last November but makes its US debut this weekend on BBC America — is darker and more adult, though no less compelling for it.

Over five weeks, each hour-long program focuses on the Shakespearean travails of a single family of animals, from lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve (this weekend’s opening episode) to chimpanzees in West Africa (the following week, on Jan. 26), tigers in India (Feb. 2), African painted wolves in Zimbabwe (Feb. 9) and finally, penguins in Antarctica (Feb. 16).

The word “Shakespearean” is not used lightly. Dynasties is positively Shakespearean in theme, tone, and content. Each hour-long episode was four years in the making and features a patriarch or matriarch as its lead character who faces a life-and-death struggle for survival against fate, the elements and, as often as not, other members of the family. The slings and arrows of misfortune are rarely far away, and that’s true whether you’re the king of beasts or one of humankind’s distant relatives.

True, Dynasties can make for grim going at times. Violent, too. Animals are just as cruel to their own kind, family included, as to lesser beings in the food chain. Dynasties is not your typical, family-viewing nature program. It’s a glimpse of the natural world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

One leading UK critic, writing in a national newspaper in Britain late last month, described Dynasties as an apt way to sum up the year in real-world terms (politics, the economy, the rise of fascism, etc.) set against the backdrop of a growing climate crisis and rapidly depleted natural resources.

One of the criticisms — by some, though by no means all — of Attenborough’s recent nature programs is that they gloss over urgent, big-picture issues like climate change and its inevitable effect on habitat loss, looming mass extinction and the relentless destruction of entire ecosystems.

 Dynasties is neither an antidote nor a counter-argument to that, but it’s not an idealized, Disneyfied view of nature as a paradise on Earth. The life of a chimpanzee or lion is not easy, and Attenborough and veteran Planet Earth producer Mike Gunton are determined to prove just how hard it can be.

It sounds unrelenting, but please do try to tough it out. There are moments in Dynasties that are astonishing to behold, breathtaking even.

Planet Earth and its follow-up series Blue Planet set the standard in wildlife photography, but there are images — and moments — in Dynasties that are simply unforgettable. The violence, the ever-present threat of death, raises the stakes and makes the quiet, poignant moments in-between even more profound somehow.

Dynasties is not family viewing. Parents with younger children might want to think hard before exposing their kids to the series’ darker moments. That said, it’s eye-opening, hypnotic stuff, just the same.

In Saturday’s opener, the camera lingers while an inexperienced young lion wanders obviously into a pack of two-dozen hyenas, in a scene straight out of The Lion King, and the tension is unbearable. (Anyone who studies large predators in the wild will tell you there’s nothing sadder than watching an apex predator being cut down in its prime.) It’s a harsh reminder of how survival of the fittest dictates every wild animal’s fate, even the king of beasts.

In another, equally affecting scene, a banished lioness is forced to abandon her ailing cub so she can be accepted back into the pride. These are raw, real-life tales.

Dynasties is unflinching, too, in documenting the fate facing lions as a species. Fewer than 2,000 lions remain in Kenya, home to the Maasai Mara — the northern extension of the Serengeti Plain — and one of the last remaining strongholds for wild lions left on planet Earth.

If there’s a single defining hour of the entire series, though, it’s next week’s second episode, Chimpanzee.

Chimpanzees remind us of ourselves — the human connection is both philosophical and real. The traits of a Shakespearean play are there for all to see in Chimpanzee.

The central story revolves around an aging patriarch, named “David” by the anthropologists studying the troop. David is being challenged on a daily basis by ambitious, adult offspring, one of whom believes the best way to rule the troop is by imposing a never-ending state of chaos. (More than one UK critic drew parallels between the dysfunction chimpanzee troop in Chimpanzee and the current political situation facing the US. David lives every day of his life fearful of a coup, and his own family members are not to be trusted. Remind you of anyone?)

Chimpanzee was filmed over four years in the remote Sahel region of Senegal, in West Africa, where the ever-expanding Sahara desert is starting to intrude on the green forests David and his fellow primates call home.

David is the king, but two young males — Luthor and Jumkin — have their own ideas about who the leader should be. David forges a temporary alliance with another older male, an older male who has no stomach or ambition for the crown. As in most Shakespearian tragedies, though, loyalty proves fleeting.

To tell more would ruin the tale, because just when you think you have it figured out and know how it’s about to end, nature — and the filmmakers — throw a curve.

It’s a remarkable hour of television. The entire series is remarkable, in fact, but be warned. This is no children’s tale. Over Dynasties’ five hours, you’ll see how lions, chimpanzees, tigers, wild dogs, and penguins live in the real world. Expect to be put through the emotional wringer.

Generational tales like those in Dynasties have a way of transcending the moment, however. This is quite literally one of the most emotional and unforgettable nature programs you’ll ever see.

"Dynasties" premieres Saturday on BBC America at 9 p.m. ET with the episode ‘Lion.’ The second episode, ‘Chimpanzee,’ airs Jan. 26, also 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.

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jane ling
Wonderful as usual, love anything he produses
Jan 18, 2019   |  Reply
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