The oft-quoted if little-understood phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” would seem like a thin premise for an eight-episode series. Yet producer Mark Burnett dives in with his customary gusto, re-creating the 1871 trek through Africa by journalist Henry Morton Stanley to find the Scottish explorer. Yet though the ostensible goal is to replicate the spirit of 19th century adventure, the show invariably succumbs to 21st century reality-TV conventions, including tiresome squabbling among its central quartet of trail followers. So while “Expedition Africa” should work for History, as history it further bastardizes the channel’s fading brand.
The project is certainly well suited to Burnett’s fascination with exotic locales, setting off from Zanzibar to travel 970 miles through Africa — with all the stunning outdoor imagery and eerie night-vision photography one would expect.
Along the way, though, “Expedition” frequently loses sight of its own quest, drawn as it is to the drama and conflict surrounding the bickering team assembled to replicate Stanley’s feat: Mireya Mayor, an anthropologist who, not incidentally, looks swell in a tank top; survivalist Benedict Allen, another gift from central casting, who looks and sounds like Stewart Granger circa “King Solomon’s Mines”; journalist Kevin Sites; and expedition leader Pasquale Scaturro (think Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen”), who’s prone to constantly reminding his cohorts how much more experienced he is than them.
Questions regarding how these type-A personalities will mesh are introduced immediately and exacerbated as “Africa happens,” as Mayor puts it, throwing monkey wrenches into their best-laid plans. As that dynamic takes hold, the series drifts from its historical underpinnings toward the well-trodden path of “Survivor,” where the narrator teases that “tensions mount” and you get to hear the participants say things like “If the donkeys don’t show up, we’re pretty much screwed.”
Burnett certainly knows this field better than anybody, mixing character-driven drama with travelogue locations — a combination that should perform just fine given History’s relatively modest ratings expectations. That said, “Expedition” continues the channel’s journey from what it obviously deemed a confining brand (already begun with entries like “Ice Road Truckers”) into the reality thicket alongside other cable nets that have rendered their acronyms meaningless in the pursuit of younger demos.
In that context, one can presume that traditional history buffs are pretty much screwed, with or without the donkeys.