These increasingly tight economic times continue to show that even the most high-minded amongst us is seemingly not immune to the pressures of commercial interest, and as such this summer season on the History Channel (formerly The Hitler Channel) heralds the arrival of such fare as the returning Ice Truckers and the brand new Expedition Africa; shows that aren’t really educational and have sod all to do with history. But if you watch them long enough, chances are you’ll see someone get hurt!
Inspired by the now legendary tale of journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s trek into the African wilderness in search of David Livingstone (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”), the show purports to have a team of explorers and survivalists recreate this 980-mile journey “in the spirit of Livingstone.” It’s a mission statement that’s just suitably vague enough for each of the headstrong troupe to derive his or her own interpretation, the mismatched correlation of which will hopefully be the source of much conflict.
In fact no sooner had they all arrived one by one to the meeting point, Big Brother-style, than navigator Pasquale started squawking about his extensive experience, much to the annoyance of wildlife expert Miraya and survivalist Benedict who called him a “primate.” Rounding out this makeshift quartet is journalist and former war correspondent Kevin, whose journal is supposed to be our window into this strange, new world.
Of course, as is the case with any reality television show, any features of the land or sense of discovery are immediately discarded in favor of nakedly manipulative clips designed to show these guys as egomaniacs and an absurdly manufactured sense of danger. A simple river crossing cuts between our expedition in a canoe and some close ups to some rather angry looking crocodiles. Cut like this – back and forth, canoe to croc – you get the sense that these predators are mere feet away which is of course nonsense, with this footage taken hours or perhaps even days earlier at a very safe distance.
Much is made of the fact that they have nothing but a primitive map and a compass to guide them. Yes that’s true to a certain extent, but you can’t pretend to us that the unit director doesn’t have a GPS and a SAT phone tucked in his backpack and every one of them couldn't be airlifted out of this place in under an hour should the worst ever happen.
Pretty soon the egos do come into play with Pasquale refusing to take suggestions from the other three and marching on at a relentless pace with the sole intention of getting to the end as fast as possible. Miraya and Benedict are of the view that if they don’t pace themselves and take it all in then they might as well being going through Africa in a reinforced white truck with a lion printed on the side. The influence of producer Mark Burnett can easily be felt and ensures that while none of these guys are going to get voted out of the jungle, this is far more Survivor than surviving.
The real star of this show is, of course, Africa itself, and the few moments each episode where we’re not forced to listen to a bunch of strangers bicker about who should be in charge of what are simply breathtaking. The panoramic sweeps of the misty Uluguru Mountains, their peaks reaching through the clouds, are beyond beautiful, and the picturesque landscape resonates a kind of untouched serenity unique to that part of the world.
But all too often it plays second fiddle to the ridiculously sensationalized incident such as when one porter collapses through the heat. Were he alone and out of contact, his life might indeed be in jeopardy. But he’s not and to try and present this is an authentic life-threatening situation just serves to siphon off the show’s credibility. Just show us the land! A local village kind enough to re-supply the expedition that shows off a celebratory, ritualistic snake dance by firelight is simply fascinating. That’s Africa! The petty arguments of a bunch of self-inflated white people whose egos far outstrip their ability is something we can see on the big networks seven nights a week.
Created By: Mark Burnett
Starring: Pasquale Scaturro, Mireya Mayor, Benedict Allen, Kevin Sites
Network: The History Channel
Airtime: Sundays, 10:00pm