Like a lot of cable networks, National Geographic Channel often appears to struggle when it comes to getting noticed. Its particular challenges also include maintaining a well-respected brand, which somewhat curbs just how TLC it can become in its quest to attract viewers. So credit the network with two appealing programs that lead its spring charge: “Brain Games,” a breezy half-hour series that makes science entertaining; and “The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us,” a six-hour documentary that resembles some of VH1’s better efforts in a nostalgic vein — and a show that has demo bull’s-eye written all over it.
Although the subtitle “The Decade That Made Us” initially sounds like an overreach, it’s difficult to argue with some of the jaw-dropping technology, at the very least, birthed during the Reagan years, including cellphones, videogames, the Sony Walkman and the maturation of cable from a mere delivery system into an alternative programming conduit, to name just a few. Throw in rap/hip-hop, Jane Fonda popularizing aerobics and the birth of the modern Super Bowl ad with Apple’s “1984″ spot, and the legacy of the decade certainly casts an oversized shadow.
Narrated by Rob Lowe (another clever stroke), the doc inevitably flits around, allocating time in a sometimes questionable fashion: For instance, it devotes nearly as much coverage to skateboarder Tony Hawk — during a second hour that looks at the advent of “hippie capitalists” — as it does to the assassination attempt on President Reagan.
Still, the opening chapters do a nifty job of setting the stage for how ’80s innovations continue to echo through our hectic, heavily wired lives, while interviewing a vast assortment of sources accompanied by a soundtrack that almost instantly propels you back to the days when Madonna first became a household name.
It’s both commercial and thought-provoking — a description that also applies to “Brain Games,” which explores the fascinating way the mind processes information through visual trickery that deftly exploits TV as a medium.
Hosted with just enough wonky enthusiasm by Jason Silva and featuring magician Apollo Robbins, each installment races through “games” meant to illustrate a particular aspect of brain processing: perception, time, fear and how our focal and peripheral vision pick up (and block out) information. Encouraging viewers to play along at home, the project cleverly compels viewers to contemplate the brain’s limits, shortcomings and defenses when it comes to consuming and assembling data.
Taken together, the two give NatGeo a solid one-two punch, and (with any success, naturally) could point the way toward a programming niche, built around playful curiosity, that could make the channel a more formidable competitor to Discovery in that space. Notably, Discovery has an upcoming cranial competition, “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,” so gray matter is apparently the new black.
At least, it’s nice to think so. But as any critic knows, when it comes to anticipating whether a sizable-enough audience will respond to promising programs, the mind has a way of playing tricks.
The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us
(Documentary; National Geographic, Sun.-Tues. April 14-16, 9 p.m.)
Narrator: Rob Lowe.
(Series; National Geographic, Mon. April 22, 9 p.m.)
Produced by National Geographic Television. Executive producers, Jerry Kolber, Allan Butler. 30 MIN.
With: Jason Silva, Apollo Robbins.