Though Mark Burnett has produced shows as different as "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and "On the Lot" and "Rock Star," his original credits were on the "Eco Challenge" franchise and many of his subsequent shows have been variations on that theme. "Survivor" is "Eco Challenge" for lazy, scheming people. "Pirate Master" was "Eco Challenge" with swashbucklers (and Christian Okoye). "The Apprentice" was "Eco Challenge" in the urban jungle.
Now, Mark Burnett Productions is behind History Channel's "Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone," which is "Eco Challenge" for intellectually curious viewers. Based on early episodes, "Expedition Africa" is more exciting than most unscripted summer options, with an added bonus: If you don't watch out, you may actually learn something.
[Review of "Expedition Africa" after the break...]
The eight-part series recreates journalist Henry Morton Stanley's journey into the heart of the Tanzanian interior in search of missing explorer Dr. David Livingstone. Stanley's trip reached its climax in the autumn of 1871 and you know it ended up OK, because "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" has entered our collective cultural vernacular.
Armed only with a compass and basic maps, journalist Kevin Sites, survivalist Benedict Allen, navigator Pasquale Scatturo and wildlife expert Mireya Mayor attempted to recreate Stanley's trip, starting in Zanzibar and going deep into the jungle. Along the way, they encounter rugged terrain, unpredictable weather, wild animals (snakes, snakes, everywhere snakes) and the threat of disease, dehydration, disorientation and general discomfort.
Yes, these people are all esteemed professionals in their fields, but don't be fooled into thinking this show wasn't cast with the same careful eye that brings you "Survivor." Mayor, Allen and Sites are all on the more photogenic end of their chosen professions, while Scaturro has the sort of verging-on-crazy glint in his eye you might expect from a character in a Werner Herzog documentary.
The result of the careful casting is that viewers will almost immediately start looking for traditional reality show tropes to play out. As with any season of "Survivor," the first two episodes of "Expedition Africa" are all around clashes of leadership style and the building of alliances. If Jeff Probst were to appear out of the mist, there's little doubt that Scatturo, stubborn, callous and sexist, would be voted off first and that Mayor and Allen would have promised each other that they'd go to the Final Two together (Do I smell a shomance?). But with everybody overlooking Sites, the only participant without expedition training (but background as a war correspondent), might we be looking at a dark horse and a stealth leader?
Fortunately, "Expedition Africa" doesn't actually materialize that way. Nobody plays for Immunity. And nobody wins any rewards, though in familiar "Survivor" fashion, the first native tribe our group encounters promptly throws them a feast, complete with native dancing.
Though none of the four "stars" are native Africans, they've hired a team of local porters, as well as a pair of Masaai Warriors for protection. The Africans, at least the ones with basic-to-impressive English skills, are given a fair amount of camera time and are impressively candid about their employers, which helps cure some of the colonialistic unease that might otherwise be felt.
The show neatly dodges how much our team is paying these assistants, much less what the overall budget for the trip is, but one can suspect it's disingenuously high for a show that keeps boasting at how low-frills it is. Similarly, they're following Stanley's original course, except for when they choose to deviate from that court to get more aesthetically pleasing cinematography or to generate more adventurous drama.
Certainly "Expedition Africa" is structured around act-break cliffhangers and seemingly shocking moments, even if they never materialize. In the premiere, for example, everybody whips themselves into a frenzy when Sites "disappears," ignoring that he was with multiple porters and a Maasai, all plenty capable of situating themselves in the bush (and that he was found within minutes). That being said, it isn't "Man vs. Wild," where Bear goes diving into quicksand and sucker-punches koalas just to prove points. They aren't inviting danger, per se.
The show's agenda is also educational and Mayor, Allen and Scatturo have tidbits to share at nearly every turn, information on compass-management, tribal dining habits, African history (mostly as pertains to the White Man) and crocodile mating. My favorite early kernel is that if you're out camping and need to start a fire, tampons -- specifically the fibrous insides of tampons -- are better tinder than the typical twigs and underbrush people usually use.
"Survivor" began its life as a summer series, but migrated to fall and spring when CBS realized it was a golden egg-laying goose the network almost couldn't kill. "Expedition Africa" enters that vacuum and does it well and if viewers respond to its blend of nature-loving intrigue and lecturing, I'm sure there are countless other famous explorations History Channel can recreate in the future.
"Expedition Africa" premieres on Sunday, May 31 at 10 p.m. on History Channel.
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