Discovery’s latest hybrid isn’t a documentary, exactly, nor does it play like a true drama. Employing the sort of storytelling tricks that brought “Walking With Dinosaurs” to life, the channel teams with the BBC to present this intriguing chronicle of the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii, reconstructing that day in 79 A.D. through special effects, story-driven recreations and scientific conjecture. Ultimately, several spoonfuls of drama help the history go down, yet it’s still a compelling look at a disaster that — given recent demonstrations of our unstable world — has an element of timeliness.
Having already aired in the U.K., this handsome effort is enlightening both in regard to the nature of volcanoes (especially for those of us schooled on “The Devil at 4 O’Clock”) and the rich cultural treasure trove left in Pompeii’s ruins.
Gladiators, for example, roamed the city with surprising freedom and were treated like star athletes. Who knew, moreover, that there was a burgeoning business involving the collection and use of urine to clean clothes? (OK, maybe I could have done without that part.)
The recreations, of course, are laden with dramatic license, from the lovely doe-eyed slave traveling with her master to the wealthy nobles who free their human property shortly before the end. Since these events amount to speculation for soap-like narrative effect, they only detract from the production’s overriding strength — namely, a meticulous breakdown of the eruption’s impact and scope.
What makes “Pompeii” resonate, however, is the underlying idea of a civilization wiped clean by an act of seismic petulance. The mummified remains, moreover, provide inordinate detail, down to jewelry that helped identify the status of victims. Coupled with recreations of confused residents suddenly overwhelmed by an angry planet, it’s hard not to be reminded of the horrific loss of life in the tsunami that devastated South Asia.
The one cautionary note is that as Discovery, the History Channel and other networks increasingly rely on dramatizations to spice up documentary material — especially when exploring eras that predate video imagery — they inevitably drift further from true history and onto the shakier ground of infotainment.
Hey, we get it, the kids won’t watch stills and drawings, which means there’s a balancing act in creating strong visual elements without toppling into melodrama. To its credit, “Pompeii” nimbly dances up to that line, but it’s a small misstep from there to becoming a costume version of “Dawson’s Creek.”