Trying to capture any sliver of Earth across six episodes is often a fool’s errand. Capturing all the natural complexities of a particular habitat is near-impossible in simple, bite-sized chunks. Yet, over the last decade and a half, a surge in nature programming has sought to do just that, leading to a cycle of technical and formatting oneupmanship.
So it would be easy to assume that “A Wild Year on Earth,” a new documentary series premiering on BBC America, is another in a long line of programs built around a single hook. Series have taken a continent-by-continent approach, focused solely on underwater life, or leaned into the brutality of certain species’ predatory practices. “A Wild Year on Earth” gathers up all of those angles and assembles them under a calendar-based structure. Each episode covers a two-month stretch in the life of the planet, spanning climates and geographical regions to show the various cycles happening in rough chronological order.
In that sense, this series does an admirable job when tasked with devising a series that gestures toward something comprehensive. Not only does this series document the different curious animal behaviors that pepper the planet, “A Wild Year on Earth” tries to put human activity in a similar context. Throw in a consideration of weather patterns and climate shifts and you have an introduction to the world that, though it takes its share of shortcuts, is a solid entry point for anyone unfamiliar with this ever-growing sub-genre.
That’s partly because these episodes find thematic connections beyond simply lumping together simultaneous natural goings-on. Rearing, migration, and hunting for food (processes which happen in a different order depending on species) are hardly novel concepts for any nature overview, but “A Wild Year on Earth” seeks to use those more universal ideas to weave these disparate vignettes together.
Northern Pictures /BBCA
The series switches to a global view quite literally at points, zooming out to show the Earth’s rotation or to demonstrate swirling weather patterns. There’s an attempt to pair these on-the-ground happenings with an understanding of the other environmental forces prompting, aiding, or impeding various animals’ actions. Plants become a part of this web, too. It’s a lot more difficult to ascribe intent to a bacon tree, but “A Wild Year on Earth” acknowledges that flora have a central part to play in this process.
The series’ breadth of locations is also reflected in the scale of the creatures under the lens. Massive hippopotamuses and scrawny earwigs both get significant airtime, with their travails not put on any relative spectrum because of their size. If anything, “A Wild Year on Earth” tries to put into context how much work goes into something like a dung beetle rolling its giant poop ball. And though some crocodile attacks and swooping raptors make for more well-established captivating nature footage, the show manages to draw out just as much interest in a raccoon-crayfish showdown or macaques lounging in natural hot springs.
If there’s a place where “A Wild Year on Earth” feels less successful, it’s in some of its framing choices. There’s a trap that most of these shows stumble into of over-personifying certain animal behaviors in order to make them more accessible to viewing audiences. There are plenty of instances where “A Wild Year on Earth” does meet these animals on their own terms, celebrating the unique ways that they approach survival. So it does feel like a misstep whenever an action movie soundtrack artificially inflates the inherent drama of a chase sequence or when instances of death are filled with explicitly human conceptions of grief.
Even when asked to give some of this overly sentimental narration, Laura Carmichael is a more-than-capable guide through the series. She has the necessary blend of conversational warmth and professorial authoritativeness that best anchors series like these. That she can bring a touch of humor or fear or somberness all on her own makes some of those written passages even more redundant at points.
The biggest benefit of having Carmichael as a narrator is that she can convey the majesty and grandeur of large-scale natural phenomena, but also the idea that some of these developments happen by chance. “A Wild Year on Earth” isn’t afraid to acknowledge the concept of luck, that sometimes the difference between life and death isn’t a preordained, organized pattern but whether or not an animal happens to slip or step in the right spot. There’s a respect for nature here, one that oddly deepens by embracing the idea that there’s just as much chaos in these stories as there is generationally maintained order.
That struggle between randomness and purpose also seeps into the way the show includes people. These stretches are meant to connect humans to the environment rather than single out different international cultures as bizarre curiosities. By design, all of these global check-ins are surface-level, be they examples of frog breeding or global celebrations of the Easter season. Over time, these tiny, planet-hopping insights start to fit together and build to a rhythm tracking the waning calendar.
“A Wild Year on Earth” balances the plight of single creatures with a wider view of groups traveling in packs and flocks and herds. At times, the series feels like it’s marking off a checklist of regions and corners of the animal kingdom. The overall effect, though, is condensing a broad wildlife spectrum and making a compact case for the wonders of a planet worth preserving. It may be an oversimplification for some, but when taken in full, it’s an impressive attempt to fit 365 days into 300 dazzling minutes.
“A Wild Year on Earth” airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.