“Mankind: The Story of All of Us" 9 p.m. Tuesday, History
If you run a documentary-oriented television channel, apparently you are periodically overcome with an irresistible urge to go for the everything program: a program, usually a miniseries, which tries to capture the totality of an impossibly big subject. The BBC and the Discovery Channel had the acclaimed “Planet Earth," followed a few years later by “Life." The National Geographic Channel has had projects like the sumptuous “Great Migrations."
In 2010, History checked in with the 12-hour “America: The Story of Us," and, on Tuesday nights, it applies the formulas used in that miniseries to the even more all-encompassing “Mankind: The Story of All of Us." That preposterously grandiose title really needed to be strung out a bit to give an accurate picture of the program. Something like, “Mankind: The Story of All of Us, Delivered Somewhat Superficially by People You Know and Love, Because We Don’t Want to Bore You."
The series, at least judging from the first two hours, feels as if its broadcast incarnation is a secondary concern. What it is really aiming for is the high school market. It’s a quick survey of our species’ high points — walking upright, cultivating seeds, learning more efficient ways to kill one another — delivered in student-friendly fashion with a stay-awake soundtrack and a narrator (Josh Brolin) who intones the important points in imposing, write-this-down fashion.
Nothing wrong with that. As a teaching tool, the series has much to recommend it, especially the way it emphasizes how one historical development influences another, a cause and effect often missed in the dry dates-and-places method of some classrooms.
The mastering of agriculture led to a sense of territory that led to wars. Domestication of livestock led to living in proximity to animals, which led to more diseases.
That last point is made by Dr. Mehmet Oz, the television personality, one of many well-known faces who turn up here. It also draws on a sort of pop-culture cast to underscore important developments — the newscaster Brian Williams, for instance, and the chef Anthony Bourdain.
This isn’t as gimmicky as it sounds. The observations from these folks are just as trenchant as those from the college professors, and they help make the series feel less like a lecture.
The series, though, seems too eager to focus on warfare, perhaps because that allows for lots of imagery of men swinging swords and taking an arrow to the heart. It’s true, as the series notes, that war has often driven technological innovation. But as this series goes along, the test of its ambition will be whether it lets other strands of history that are harder to illustrate — religious thought, scientific inquiry — have an equal place.