Discovery inaugurates this four-part, eight-hour endeavor, equal parts travelogue, geography lesson and political primer, with a sumptuous look at China, to be followed in successive weeks by journeys through Italy, Brazil and Australia. Attempting to capture the burgeoning superpower on both macro and micro levels, producer-writer-director Cassian Harrison employs first-person, anecdotal segments, viewing the wrenching changes occurring through the experiences of its people.

Discovery inaugurates this four-part, eight-hour endeavor, equal parts travelogue, geography lesson and political primer, with a sumptuous look at China, to be followed in successive weeks by journeys through Italy, Brazil and Australia. Attempting to capture the burgeoning superpower on both macro and micro levels, producer-writer-director Cassian Harrison employs first-person, anecdotal segments, viewing the wrenching changes occurring through the experiences of its people. Whatever the ratings, this handsome project should yield dividends down the road via DVD sales and educational outreach while reinforcing and focusing the cable net’s at-times murky brand niche.

Crisply narrated by James Spader, “China Revealed” ranges far and wide to delineate the explosive growth taking place throughout the country and its impact on 1.3 billion souls.

Beyond obligatory views of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, Harrison puts human faces on the statistics, exploring how China’s one-child policy has created “an entire generation of only children,” meaning parents pin hopes and dreams on tykes such as the 12-year-old gymnast practically bred from birth for her shot at Olympic glory in 2008, when the Summer Games come to Beijing.

Others profiled include a rural migrant worker hired as a window-washer on Shanghai’s innumerable skyscrapers; an office worker who feels she must undergo plastic surgery to compete for jobs; and Mongolian horsemen concerned about fading traditions and a lost way of life. Along the way, often through gorgeous aerial photography, Harrison presents sweeping images of a China painfully adjusting to modernity, with roads suddenly clogged by 20 million private cars where almost none existed a few decades ago.

Not all the segments work equally well, but the opener makes clear that such programming can be informative without feeling stodgy or boring — an inevitable concern given the tyranny of younger demos to which mature basic cable nets are increasingly subject.

The brainchild of Discovery founder John Hendricks, “Discovery Atlas” is the sort of impressive docu fare that, along with the recently minted relationship with Ted Koppel, lends a prestigious gloss to the network after a period in which some programming ventures veered off-course into sensationalism. If nothing else, it’s a sturdy foundation and a welcome return to the channel’s roots — proving that it needn’t be “Shark Week” for Discovery to exhibit a little bite.

Discovery Atlas: China Revealed

Sun. Oct. 1, 9 p.m.

Production

Produced by Lion Television. Series executive producer, Maureen Lemire; executive producer-writer-director, Cassian Harrison.

Crew

Camera, Lee Pulbrook; editor, James Gold; music, the Footnote. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast

Narrator: James Spader.

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