What makes good TV? CEO of the National Geographic Channel, Courteney Monroe, unintentionally nailed this answer perfectly while introducing the network’s first ever scripted series,”Mars,” at its NYC premiere:
“Entertainment and smart are not mutually exclusive,” she said.
If you’ve ever wondered why “Breaking Bad,” “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos,” still come under heavy discussion, or what makes “Game of Thrones,” “Transparent” and “Silicon Valley” such enduring cultural phenomena, that simple answer is all you need. Each of them is so entertaining that no one realizes that they are also learning something at the same time.
Whether discovering how a mobster can also be a good-hearted man with a rich internal life, learning all about beta testing in the highest levels of our app-centric world, or — in this case — why the exploration of Mars is so imperative to life on Earth — these edifying aspects are so finely embedded in the fictional story, the nutritive value is nearly invisible if you’re not looking for it.
On Monday night (Nov. 14), National Geographic revolutionized scripted TV with a story of such virtuosity that the leaner, educational constants beneath — and implications about our lives now — are embedded within.
The six-episode global event is being called a “docu-series,” for it’s a fictional drama about the first human mission to the Red Planet. Created using only scientifically proven factual information, viewers are taken to the year 2033, in which a space crew readies itself to not just land on Mars, but to colonize it: Something that, according to scientists, could happen in real life in even less than 16 years.
Using modern technology and the supervision of some the world’s most extraordinary space minds: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk, former NASA astronauts James Lovell, and Mae C. Jemison, just to name a few, from take-off to landing, and beyond, the series remains grounded in truth.
“We had unprecedented access,” Howard says. “Hats off to Nat Geo. This is the one network that could actually do this project.”
Along with breathtaking orbital visuals, expert camera work, superior casting, and the artistic direction of filmmaker Everardo Gout, everything comes together to form what is easily the most compelling event series, if not television show full stop, of 2016.
Executive produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, “Mars” tactfully uses flashbacks to our current space travel development programs in order to show all the trials and tribulations that eventually lead to the crew of the fictional “Daedalus” successfully making their Martian landfall. With the most impressive astrophysicists, scientists, and astronauts helping shape the script, you never have to wait for that worldbreaking moment when you wonder if someone will (or know that you must) point and say, “Oh, that’s not actually possible.”
This is not Sandra Bullock using a fire extinguisher to push herself through space like in “Gravity.” None of the story is fictionalized like Matt Damon’s journey based on Any Weir’s novel, “The Martian.” However, award-winning journalist, Stephen Petranek who penned the book, “How We’ll Live on Mars,” for which the “Mars” series is based, doesn’t throw shade on such entertainment.
“The exposure of ‘Gravity,’ one year later ‘Interstellar,’ and one year later ‘The Martian,’ have done more to open people’s minds up to exploring space and getting off of Earth than anything that has happened in the last 30 or 40 years. Anything since the Apollo project,” Patranek says.
“Even though there are things that drive me crazy, like the dust storm at the beginning of ‘The Martian.’ There’s this dust storm and this metal antenna gets shoved into Matt Damon’s chest. That can not happen on Mars. On Mars, the atmosphere is one one-hundredth as dense as Earth’s, so even if you have a 300 or 400 mile dust storm, the atmosphere is so thin, that that can’t happen. He can’t be blown away. The dust goes right around you.”
When asked if he grilled Weir on this topic, Petranek says, “Oh yeah. He knows. He says, ‘Well, I wrote a novel, not a journalistic text.’ [However], my book is all journalism. I recognize the difference between entertainment and educational programming. And what I think is so remarkable [about ‘Mars’]… It’s the first successful attempt to have drama and entertainment that is perfectly accurate married with real documentary. People will be entertained and learn at the same time.”
Petranek hope “Mars” not only pushes excitement towards space exploration, and inspires people to take better care of Earth, he hopes it starts a new trend in TV production.
“I’m hoping that this show will be part of a launch of the National Geographic Channel which makes it a lot more like HBO. Because if there’s another distributor that’s like HBO, then there will be more that follow that. It’ll be successful for all of us. And our kids.”
“Mars” premieres on Monday, Nov. 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.