TV Preview: Dan Zak on 'Expedition Africa: Stanley and Livingstone'

Misadventurers Kevin Sites, left, Benedict Allen, Pasquale Scaturro and Mireya Mayor.
Misadventurers Kevin Sites, left, Benedict Allen, Pasquale Scaturro and Mireya Mayor. (By Brent Stirton -- History Channel)
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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2009

Shhh, be very quiet. Observe the historical series, grazing in the shade of that acacia tree. Note its large lumbering legs, used to support its massive weight. And look! Nearby, a reality show lurks. It is reptilian, with lightning-fast agility and bright, shiny scales to confuse its prey. Surely this spells disaster for the historical series, which lounges on its rump, oblivious. The reality show creeps closer, and closer, and -- oh dear God, they're mating. The reality show has mounted the historical series! Look away! Look away!

What could such an unnatural coupling possibly produce?

Answer: a bad egg. "Expedition Africa: Stanley and Livingstone," a new reality show on the History Channel, is a hybrid hatched by Mark Burnett, the man who helped launch the age of reality TV with "Survivor." He's now applied the tenets of the genre (confrontation, over-dramatization, gracelessness) to the story of celebrated Scottish explorer David Livingstone, who traced the source of the Nile River into East Africa in the 19th century, and Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh journalist who pursued him once he disappeared into the heart of the continent. In "Expedition Africa," four "elite explorers" are tasked with retracing Stanley's nine-month, 970-mile journey, using only a compass and basic maps.

They have 30 days to do it. The result is an eight-part series -- part history, part reality -- that is fantastically boring and inherits none of the appeal of its parentage. If the first two episodes are any indication, the journey is less a re-exploration of a storied trek than an outright bumble in the jungle.

The explorers run out of water on Day 3 of their African expedition, just like they did on Day 1. "We could die," says one of the explorers. A timpani thunders on the soundtrack, just like it did two days earlier, when the explorers realized they had no sailing experience but had to cross from the island of Zanzibar to the Tanzanian mainland. "We could drown," one of them says.

Die? Drown? In front of camera operators and producers? We dare you, explorers.

Aside from documenting the bumbling, the first episode sketches brief biographies of the explorers. Navigator Pasquale Scaturro, for example, assisted the first blind man to climb Mount Everest, and survivalist Benedict Allen once ate his own dog to stave off starvation. The quartet is rounded out by wildlife expert Mireya Mayor, who is concerned about the 29 varieties of poisonous snake in their path, and journalist Kevin Sites, who was the first war correspondent for Yahoo News.

These four explorers are accompanied by two Masai warriors (for protection) and a phalanx of Tanzanian porters (to carry luggage). It's imperialist nostalgia, watching four white people hack through the bush with a support staff of natives. What's most offensive, though, is that "Expedition Africa" is dull. The second episode is an hour-long yawnfest of contrived confrontation and exaggerated danger. The most exciting moment arrives when a porter suffers heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion! The explorers shade him with a palm, then scold each other for their aggressive pace.

In case it's not painfully obvious: There is little history and even less reality in "Expedition Africa." It is neither entertaining nor informing. There are no survival tips, few compelling digressions about Livingstone or Stanley, and only passing glances at picturesque African vistas. In one comical violation of history, the explorers redraw Stanley's route to avoid populated areas and aim for more dangerous, camera-friendly scenarios.

"You can see why Stanley would avoid doing this," Mayor says as they begin crossing the inhospitable Uluguru Mountains, which the journalist sidestepped because he wasn't being tailed by a camera crew.

Does the crew reach Dr. Livingstone? Does it matter? If you want squabbling teammates racing through exotic destinations, watch "The Amazing Race." If you want dangerous, exciting treks into danger, watch "Man vs. Wild." If you want history, read a book. Let's hope that, like a mule, "Expedition Africa" will be unable to reproduce. Till then, look away! Look away!

Expedition Africa: Stanley and Livingstone premieres tomorrow at 10 p.m. on the History Channel.

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