The Spartans prepare for battle. (Joe Alblas / History Channel )
The folks at History are nothing if not ambitious. Two years ago, In "America: The Story of Us," the basic cable network reduced the history of the United States to a 12-hour miniseries, its lavish and entailed reenactments punctuated by commentary from citizens as diverse as Colin Powell, Michael Douglas and Donald Trump.
Now History turns its attention to a wider palette. The entire palette, actually. "Mankind: The Story of All of Us," was created by Nutopia, the production company behind "Story of Us," and uses a similar construct and time frame — 12 hours — in which to review the evolution of human civilization.
For the record, that's just two hours more than Oliver Stone is devoting to his new Showtime series, "The Untold History of the United States," which covers less than 75 years. But executive producers Ben Goold and Jane Root are not interested in reframing the political themes of history so much as simply whisking through it. Which they do at a dizzying and occasionally slightly hysterical clip.
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In the first two episodes, we leap-frog immediately from the Big Bang to the grasslands of East Africa to meet a band of lithe and canny hunters whose meat-eating habits are remarked upon by nonhistorian types including Dr. Mehmet Oz and chef Anthony Bourdain. Chewing and cooking, we are told, not only created a superior brain in humans, they are, arguably, key early steps toward civilization.
There will be many of these, as the narrative progresses, including early agriculture, writing, the invention of bronze and, subsequently, trade. There will also be quite a few things that "change the story of mankind forever," including the domestication of dogs, the idea of leadership, the spread of disease, the building of the pyramids, the development of iron, the idea of the phalanx and China's mass production of the crossbow.
If this seems a hodgepodge of ideas, well, that is the general feel of "Mankind" — a scattershot catalog of man's greatest hits, lovingly enacted by a cast of grim and grimy thousands and propelled ever forward by a relentless soundtrack and urgent narration by Josh Brolin. Commentary comes from a similarly disparate assortment of folks, including Sam Sheridan, author of "The Fighter's Mind"; professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.; and Brian Williams. (Donald Trump is, mercifully, not part of the project.)
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As with "The Story of Us," "Mankind," with its emphasis on battles, weapons and gadgetry, is clearly aimed at engaging the easily distracted preteen male. A noble enough goal — certainly, iron has been a boon to us all — and it is always fascinating to see even semi-realistic depictions of how our ancestors live, be they the dioramas at a natural history museum or a well-produced documentary.
But the task is simply too large and the time too short. There is no way to tell the history of mankind in a dozen hours of television without resorting to absurdities, which here include having "experts" explain how terrible cold and hunger can be, how difficult it was to build the pyramids, how dangerous bandits were and how the invention of the alphabet made it easier to learn how to read.
'Mankind: The Story of All of Us'
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
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