Primates is a typically impressive feat of documentary filmmaking and contains plenty of insight into its subjects, but it’s lacking a certain something that would qualify it as proper event television.
This recap of Primates Episode 1 contains spoilers.
There are enough attention-grabbing nature shows these days that it can be easy to feel blasé about them. Almost every new one promises a revolutionary filming technique or an unprecedented level of access or a Royal apostate doing voiceover duties. We’ve seen deep under the sea, high up in the mountains, and into the furthest reaches of the most hostile terrain on Earth. This is probably why BBC One’s latest series Primates devotes five minutes at the end to footage of its camera crews dangling through rainforest canopies in the pouring rain. We often forget that these things take an overwhelming amount of time and effort to produce – in this case twenty-eight expeditions across two years.
I mention this because Primates doesn’t have a unique selling point to boast about beyond its stunning and insightful chronicling of our closest animal neighbors. For many that will be more than enough, but for a few the allure won’t be there, and it’s nice to remind folks that even an average nature documentary of this kind is nonetheless an incredible feat.
Is Primates average? I’d suggest not, but it doesn’t qualify as event TV either. You can’t imagine the entire nation gathering around to watch this in the same way they did, say, Dynasties, in part because it doesn’t tell the same kind of grand, sweeping stories, and partly because it doesn’t have Sir David Attenborough either. Something about a nature documentary feels lesser without him, even though Chris Packham, who narrates here, is a perfectly serviceable replacement.
Having said all this, Primates Episode 1 is still stunning, and has the right sense of what’s funny, what’s touching, and what’s reminiscent of our own lives – a silverback mountain gorilla being endlessly hassled by his kid felt like a furry approximation of my last few weeks at home. Watching capuchin monkeys fashion and use tools is wondrous in its closeness to human behavior, and yet we’re often treated to glimpses of primates that feel as divorced from us as any living thing possibly could; hideous-looking creatures seemingly sprung from science-fiction.
At least the show resists the temptation – seen in recent Disneynature outings, especially – to anthropomorphize its subjects too much; especially since so many of those subjects are so human-like, to begin with. There’s something admirable about that plainness in Primates Episode 1, and its willingness to allow both the animals to speak for themselves and the audience to get what they’re saying. If this isn’t the kind of telly that’ll set the viral world of memes and gifs alight, it’s at least the kind of telly that does exactly what it says on the tin.
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