The Secret of Life — Part I

Host: David Suzuki.

Host: David Suzuki.

First two-hour seg of an eight-hour study of the basis of life displays what TV once promised to do: Inform and entertain. Played for four nights in a row, “The Secret of Life” is a dazzling account of what DNA is and how it modifies all living things.

The first hour covers an intricate subject: DNA, its four chemical components , and how they’re structured. Those already informed about genetic biology, DNA and the commonality among living things will breeze through the complex first session; laymen may find it a strain. The intro to DNA, to genetic engineering, to insects encased in amber a la “Jurassic Park,” gives way in the second hour to diversity in life as caused by mutations.

Darwin’s feeling that life began 4 billion years ago in a warm little pond is not ridiculed, only expounded. The DNA molecule is studied, and the effectiveness of that explanation propels the docu onward. “The Immortal Thread” leads irrevocably into the second hour, “Accident of Creation,” which pokes around the effects of environment and hereditary factors on behavior.

Mutation explains the origin of sickle-cell anemia. The blood of Senegalese natives generations ago fought malaria parasites by developing sickle cells for protection. Cows developed two stomachs so they could eat grass and leaves; and a chimp and a boy, both starting with the same ape-like ancestor, developed according to their needs — their DNA molecules are 99% the same.

Astute host David Suzuki points out that aborigines sensing a kinship with animals are reacting to a primitive recognition of the continuing life form.

Technically, the program’s a whiz, except for an awkwardly staged intro to host Suzuki. Otherwise, the first two hours zip smoothly along, challenging and explaining. Suzuki’s assured narration helps the novice.

Impressive lensing and editing, the John Kusiak-Caleb Sampson score, and the forward propulsion all help ease the explanations of the complex subject.

Future episodes will look at such diverse manifestations of life as aging, cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, even flu.

While it’s an amusing thought that staid Uncle Willy is related to a giant plant standing on a Maui crater and to a playful chimp, it’s intriguing to know that the same life force passes among all living matter: It’s “The Secret of Life.”

The Secret of Life -- Part I

(Sun. (26), 9-11 p.m., PBS)

Production: Exec producer, Graham Chedd; "The Immortal Thread," filmed by WGBH/Boston and BBC-TV. Producer-director, James F. Golway; writers, Chedd, Golway.

Crew: Camera, Stuart Asbjornsen, John Howarth, Mark Knobil, Allen Moore; editors, Lee Edwards, Eric Neudel; sound, John Jenkins; music, John Kusiak, Caleb Sampson. "Accident of Creation," filmed by Chedd-Angier, WGBH/Boston and BBC-TV. Producer-director-writer, Andrew Liebman; camera, Peter Hoving; editor, David Berenson; sound, Stephen Blake; music, Kusiak, Sampson.

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