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Nova’s 'Making North America' Makes a Literally Glacial Subject Pop
November 11, 2015  | By David Sicilia  | 1 comment

is picking up the pace. The subject of this three-part series literally crawls at a glacial pace, but not this series. Three elements keep Making North America engaging.  First, it is framed as a detective story about “the secrets hiding in our own back yard.”  Its tour-guide – a cross between Clark Kent and Michael Moore, only quite likeable – and the show’s second great asset, is Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of National History.  He rappels down a cliff-side.  He spins continent-scale tales from hand-held rocks.  He scuba dives with several-billion-year-old stumpy microbe rock thingies (actually, stromatolite) in the Bahamas.

And then there’s the animation, quick cuts, and fast pans.  Strata of rock slide out like bureau drawers, and land masses reconfigure, collapsing billions of years of drift into seconds.  It is awe-inspiring to contemplate the vast expanse of time unraveling over the eons, but this series will have none of it. Pacing, pacing!

Episode 1, “Origins,” (tonight, November 11, 9 p.m., ET, check local listings) is geological deep history.  Johnson (above) shows us the deep vertical clock of the Grand Canyon’s walls, hitting 1.7 billion at the bottom.  In Alaska, he finds palm frond fossils and explains how they got there. He hops to Minnesota to meet with one of the series’ intermittent experts, pretending to learn from her seismographic evidence that a vast lava flow almost split nubile North America in half.  “Every pebble tells a story,” Johnson reflects, and while most of those stories are as meager as pebbles, some indeed tell gigantic tales.  For instance:  a stone this size in this place at that time had to have been carried by a fast-moving river … the sort you find around mountains.  So there were once mountains here. 

Tonight’s episode 2, “Life,” is my favorite, not (only) because it has lots of dinosaurs, but because it has a unifying question:  Why did North America become a “dinosaur factory”?  (Fully a quarter of all known dino fossils have been unearthed on our continent.)  With all of Johnson’s hopping about, threads of analysis sometimes get dropped or obscured.

Less so in this episode. Some of what Johnson talks about is fairly common knowledge, like the near certainty that a giant meteor collision with earth wiped out not only the dinosaurs but millions of other species, too. To tell that story, he digs into the side of a slant of earth to locate a thin stratum of glass beads and shocked quartz.  “This level is Armageddon,” he intones. He only had to dig for a couple of minutes, compared with the decades it took Dr. Louis Leakey to find a missing link bone fragment in the documentaries I grew up watching.  On TV, it seems, paleontology has lost its patience.

For every better-known story, Making North America offers a startling one.  Like how the Rocky Mountains have “come and gone several times.”  Or how present-day Manhattan, yes, is solid bedrock, but probably was once ringed with a towering mountain range.  Or how camels originated in North America, plodding through a desert here the size of Africa. 

We appear in episode 3, “Human,” which is slated to air Nov. 18.  Turns out instead of strolling across a then thousand mile wide Bering Strait, we probably floated down the erstwhile Alaska coastline in boats because the Strait was encased in treacherous ice.  We then proceeded to wipe out all kinds of cool giant mammals even before we became less hairy than Sean Connery.  When “Human” shifts into the domain of recorded history, when people told stories instead of Kirk Johnson and his fellow scientists teasing them out of rocks, the program becomes more conventional.

Making North America is oddly and unforgivably U.S.-centric. Hopping among a dozen present-day states in our union during the three hours, Johnson barely sets foot in Canada and devotes six seconds to Mexico, where there had been Aztecs and Incas, period. I’m quite sure those other parts of North America, where this program perhaps will never be licensed, harbor their own sexy geological mysteries.

A stalwart source of high-quality science programming for 43 seasons, Nova is going heavier on effects and lighter on the science than in earlier years. But if you’re willing to forego hopes of a rigorous, linear story, you’ll enjoy the ride with the effervescent Kirk Johnson, and learn some really neat stuff about minerals and vegetables and animals along the way.

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I haven't seen the series yet; it may be presumptuous to say it's "desert" not "dessert".
Nov 12, 2015   |  Reply
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