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Rockin' the Past with History Network's "Epic" 'Mankind'
November 13, 2012  | By Ed Bark

Slam. Bang. Zoom.

Stuck on hyper-drive and stuffed with hyperbole, Mankind: The Story of All of Us — premiering Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. ET — is history a-go-go from a programmer that used to obey a few speed limits.

Not so with History network's "epic" 12-hour successor to America: The Story of Us. It's another breakneck trip aimed at a drive-through, short attention span nation. The special effects again are impressive and even jaw-dropping when it comes to the super-speed constructions of a modern day bridge and The Great Wall of China. So this is a production that will look great in HD while also assaulting your senses with a drum-pounding, heavy metal whoosh through the first chapters on "Inventors" and "Iron Men."

History network sent only these two opening hours for review, with 10 more to come on successive Tuesdays. It seemed like more than enough to get the drift, though. Josh Brolin narrates this time-shifting panorama of re-enactments, many of them featuring costumed extras in various forms of warfare.

The talking head experts include NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who as usual is impeccably starched and pressed. He's also relatively calm compared to the likes of former Navy SEAL Richard "Mack" Machowicz, who acts and looks as though he'd be more than happy to re-arm himself and join the Spartans in their battle to repel the rampaging Persians.

"They're the baddest human beings on Planet Earth," he says with relish. "And they wanna stay that way."

Military historian Mike Loades also fits right in as a semi-crazed hand-talker with a particular fondness for crossbows. Brolin, who has a lot of verbiage to unload in these first two hours, thankfully is a lower-keyed tour guide in comparison to these two. Still, the overall over-the-top approach at times overwhelms him.

The title could just as easily have been Humankind in the interest of the many women who also made history. But Mankind it is, and these first two hours indeed are notably short on both female experts and characters. In truth, though, it was a highly chauvinistic man's world during the mostly B.C. centuries depicted on opening night. Brief attention is paid, though, to the world's first farmer, who is said to be a woman.

Dr. Mehmet Oz and tart chef/world traveler Anthony Bourdain join Williams among the experts popping in. But only Williams gets much air time, and really not all that much. "We are a restless bunch, we humans," he says for openers. "We are always looking 'over there' … This is our hard-wiring. Our DNA."

Tuesday's second hour ends with an image of Jesus Christ bleeding under a crown of thorns. Next week's third hour initially will spotlight His crucifixion, but perhaps not to the heavy metal soundtrack that accompanies most of the battle scenes. One gets the feeling, though, that Christ's tortuous march to Golgotha might well be whooshed through before — whoosh — there He is on the cross. And — whoosh — then came the resurrection. Forever and ever, amen.

Mankind is a visual banquet, though. And even grade schoolers surely won't be bored by its cavalcade of battle scenes, some of which almost seem like video games. In other words, it's classroom ready.

During its formative years, History network could be counted on for grainy black-and-white newsreel footage and a seeming fixation with World War II battleships. Lately it's been home to the Emmy-laden miniseries Hatfields & McCoys and those "jaw-dropping CGI" effects touted in publicity materials for Mankind.

Sober, scholarly substance can get short-changed in these cases. But more viewers than ever before are watching this venerable network, whose 18-to-49 viewership likewise is on the rise. No television executive wants to be known for letting a channel go extinct. So History network continues to rock the past — and make itself more contemporary as well.

GRADE: B-minus

Read more by Ed Bark at unclebarky.com

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