Frankly, the premise underlying Discovery’s environmental advocacy channel Planet Green sounds off-putting, especially if many of the shows wind up being wealthy Hollywood types lecturing the rest of the world about saving the Earth. Yet in “Greensburg” — a series that comes embossed with the celebrity imprimatur of exec producer Leonardo DiCaprio — the newly rebranded network has a compelling story, albeit one that’s probably not worth the 13 hours being lavished upon it. Nevertheless, it’s a solid anchor, infused with emotion and cleverly designed to bring the green movement quite literally into the heartland.
In a nutshell, think of “Greensburg” as “Extreme Makeover: Whole Friggin’ Town Edition” — brimming with American can-do spirit and, not incidentally, an environmental twist.
Against a stark black backdrop, DiCaprio introduces Greensburg, a Kansas town of 1,500 utterly devastated by a class-5 tornado in May 2007. Faced with the prospect of rebuilding, city manager Steve Hewitt seizes on the idea of establishing the aptly named hamlet as an “eco-friendly community,” as DiCaprio puts it, constructed for maximum environmental efficiency.
But how do you do that, exactly? And will the townspeople hang around in 800-square-foot FEMA trailers long enough to find out?
Although scenes are recreated for “clarity” (and obvious dramatic effect), there’s a real-folks quality to those interviewed, beginning with the astounding manner in which they discuss having “God on our side” or how the almighty is “taking care of this town,” without a hint of irony about the seemingly biblical wrath directed at them.
Not surprisingly, “Greensburg” works a little too hard at being stirring and uplifting, including a musical score that crosses over from cloying into intrusive. That said, there’s something sobering about using a tragedy as a springboard to reclaim the U.S.’ squandered reputation as a global leader, with sustainability expert John Picard issuing a stirring speech to the town urging them to make their community an example to the nation and world at large.
The show’s salt-of-the-Earth roots — and its template of representing environmentalism in patriotic terms, as opposed to elitist ones — marks a genuine breakthrough, and to a degree distinguishes the series from much of Planet Green’s initial lineup. The intent is clearly manipulative, of course, but “Greensburg” advances the very relatable notion that when push comes to shove about transforming crisis into opportunity, in our best moments there’s really not that much the matter with Kansas.