After trying for over 40 minutes, Judge William Lee finally yanked out that grey hair lurking on the hard-to-see spot on the side of his head. That's how extreme he is.
Earth is a planet of extremes: extreme places and extreme animals. But some animals are more extreme than others.
The long-running countdown series from Animal Planet arrives on DVD with the original 13 episodes of Season One, which first ran in 2002. While the animal footage doesn't reach any new heights, the format of the series does bring some hip energy to the traditional nature show. It's a faster, louder presentation that may appear gimmicky to some viewers, but obviously works well enough with its target audience to generate five seasons.
Facts of the Case
Each episode of The Most Extreme presents a countdown of animals that excel in a featured ability. In addition to the requisite footage of critters doing what they do best, the show compares the animals' amazing abilities with the equivalent human-scale feat. We are left to consider, for example, how the vulture's eating habits would be akin to a human consuming 108 hamburgers in a single sitting. We also learn that the locust may jump a seemingly inconsequential three feet, but that's about 20 times its body length—comparable to a basketball player leaping clear across the length of the court. The 13 episodes of The Most Extreme: Season One—each one running approximately 42 minutes—are presented on three discs.
A Natural History New Zealand Ltd. and Animal Planet co-production, The Most Extreme: Season One is a hybrid of the nature and science show genres. Each episode is structured as a countdown of animals that exhibit a specific ability, and this framework also allows for occasional explorations on related tangents. These informative digressions vary in specificity and relevance to the animal in question. In one example, the list of the most horrifying animals provides an opportunity to explain physiological effect of fear. In another, the kinetic energy that is expended by jumping insects is compared to the snapping of fingers. The pattern of the show relates the animals back to humans. For the most part, this device works very well to maintain interest throughout the episode—the height that a flea can jump is much more impressive when we visualize it on a scale relative to our own—but there are some instances when the connection seems a little flimsy. When talking about the bharal that live on the steep cliff sides, the brief aside to the sport of BASE jumping feels like an unnecessary (though extreme) disruption. Nevertheless, the comparisons do make it easier to visualize the ability of the animals relative to our own.
The information is presented in an accessible manner by narrator Adam Harrington. His script is filled with plays on words and though viewers may find some puns too painfully obvious, Harrington never sounds like he's too good to deliver them. Neither does he dumb down the material to skater dude coolness. His narration dominates the soundtrack and it is a small miracle that we're not tearing out our hair by the umpteenth time he's uttered the phrase "the most extreme." There is also heavy use of some simple computer animation to help illustrate points. Again, nothing exceptional about the graphics or animation but it does help to visualize the comparison of animal feats at human scale.
The mixed video quality is a result of footage gathered from various sources. Nature footage filmed in the field and in controlled environments is mixed with vintage animation, archival educational films and faded movie clips. (This assortment of materials lends an ironic quality to the proceedings.) Promising to showcase the most extreme animals, there is some very good action footage captured by the cameras. Some of the kill and feeding scenes may elevate certain episodes beyond the comfort of younger children. Most of the animal footage is in good shape, showing few defects aside from some grainy nighttime photography. The other material, perhaps intentionally degraded, looks like it was regurgitated by a humpback whale.
The audio is quite impressive on this three-disc set. The narration is at the forefront of the mix but a strong and detailed surround environment is created with the music and sound effects. We don't hear a lot in terms of animal sounds in the wild (and what we do get must compete with the narration) but it is featured where it counts—the blood-curdling cry of the Tazmanian devil comes to mind. The techno-influenced music by composer Graeme Perkins keeps the energy up throughout the series and he finds effective variations for quieter moments. Within the framework of the countdown there are plenty of moments for electronic sound effects to accompany the computer graphics. Even though it looks and sounds more like a video game, these are the scenes that give your speakers something to do.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Making The Most Extreme look and sound like a video game was probably intentional on the part of the producers of the series. However, it does look like a video game…from 2002. The series feels a little dated due to the unsophisticated animation and the visual allusions to the Matrix. That movie's influence is evident in the backdrop of cascading green digits during the virtual simulations and in the giant wall of television screens in the opening sequence. Also, the show's insistence on its "extreme" attitude invites ridicule. Some lines of the narration—"…and that's how the tapeworm takes giving birth…to the extreme"—sound like a parody of this type of show.
While the format of each episode allows space to expand on a theme, it does reduce the amount of screen time devoted to the animals. I like to see animals in my animal shows, not scratched up and faded clips from old monster movies. Sometimes the additional footage feels like filler to make up for the lack of original material featuring the animals.
Though The Most Extreme is a little too earnest in trying to appeal to a younger audience, it does a good job of injecting some energy into two quieter genres of educational television. The calm serenity of traditional nature shows is shaken up with computer graphics and a free association of video clips; the geek factor of science shows is replaced with bite-size information nuggets that make the animal facts appear more relevant to the common person. It might be the right formula that holds the attention of teens and video-gamers—an audience that prefers its documentaries delivered in short segments with flashy graphics. It isn't a groundbreaking addition to nature shows but there's enough to satisfy animal lovers of most ages.
They're not so extreme. But they're not guilty either.
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