Monday, June 01, 2009

'Expedition Africa': Unscripted at Its Best

'Expedition Africa' Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on History ChannelBy LillyKat
PTR Senior Staff Writer

Confession: I'm not a big fan of reality television.

Second confession: I told this to Mark Burnett - the Godfather of reality television.

But in a nice way, of course. How'd that go? More on that in a minute.

Let it be said the few unscripted shows I do watch fall more into that hybrid docu-reality category, and they usually must meet one of two criteria: 1) I must learn something in a field, area of expertise or genre that I am not currently aware of; and/or 2) I must watch the best of people.

Expedition Africa, the new action adventure series on the History Channel from executive producer Mark Burnett, meets both those criteria.

And then some.

Ironic, too, because I tend not to watch many of Mark's shows. Although he is credited with bringing the unscripted genre to American television screens, I have mixed feelings about what that has done to the television landscape given the unscripted genre is so watered down these days, and there seems to be a reality series for everything - many of which focus on bringing out the worst in people. As such, the genre no longer seems original, different, unique or - for the most part - worth watching.

Until, that is, one comes along where you get the best of what it was like to stumble across Survivor the first time and go, "Wow, I've never seen anything like that." And the best of a historical documentary that doesn't go the way of re-enactment, but instead, puts you there in the context of the moment, trying to re-envision the environment in the world of today so that we may better understand what a challenge it was in the days of yesteryear.

'Expedition Africa' on the History ChannelAnd in saying this to Mark on a recent call I had with him, it sorta balanced out the I'm-usually-kind-of-hard-on-the-reality-genre comment.


In this one viewer's opinion, Expedition Africa is a homerun.

"I’m really grateful to hear that from you," said Mark. "You can only do what you think is right, ‘cause other people will judge you. And in the judgment you’ve just given, I appreciate what you said that you enjoyed the work."

Enjoyed, indeed.

In sum, the Expedition Africa series is an action-adventure, docu-reality series that follows four modern day explorers (survivalist Benedict Allen; wildlife expert Mireya Manor; journalist Kevin Sites; navigator Pasquale Scaturro) on the same path of adventure-journalist Henry Morton Stanley in 1871 as he trekked through Tanzania to find Dr. David Livingstone.

There is no prize money.

There is no voting anyone off the island.

There is no rock of love date at the end of the trail.

It's just four of the world's best explorers on a trek across Tanzania, guided by nothing more than a compass, basic maps, local guides, traditions and challenges that give us a sense of what it might have been like to make this daunting journey in the 19th century.

"Expedition is trying something new," says Mark. "It's a new type of innovative storytelling – not [simply] a recreation. [And for me], it really comes down to storytelling - I just have to feel that I actually care about the characters. That’s what’s really the through line for me – I’ve got to care about the characters."

And the explorers in this series are definitely worth caring about.

As is the adventure itself.

I am partial to wildlife expert Mireya Mayor, who manages to provide the right amount of perspective amongst the three guys as well as provide the perfect yin to navigator Pasquale's agro-yang of large-and-in-chargeness. I find I could also watch survivalist Benedict Allen all day long. He never seems flustered and can do the most amazing things without flinching - like, you know, being left for dead twice in the Amazon, escape a drug kingpin's hitman and stitch up his own chest.


Now, the series is not an entirely perfect look at this-is-how-it-was-in-1871-exploration kind of thing. The explorers are not dressed in 19th century garb. They do have the benefit of some modern day technology in terms of clothing, packs, shoes, etc.

But there is no GPS.

There is no magic checkpoint to resupply with food and amenities.

There is a deadline.

And they are on their own.

These are the kind of folks who guide you up - and down - Mt. Everest. These are the kind of folks who can look at a landscape and tell you what insect is going to kill you, what plant you can eat for protein, show you what snake is one of a kind in the world, and determine whether they're going to live to die another day.

This is unscripted at its best.

Please, Mark, can we have some more?

The 8-part Expedition Africa series airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on the History Channel. For the entire scoop on the series, head on over to And remember to enter our VERY OWN Expedition Africa Prize Pack giveaway - you have until June 13th!

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