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Executive Producer James Cameron (Source: Wikipedia)
Executive Producer James Cameron (Source: Wikipedia)

Years of Living Dangerously: Sundays at 10 Eastern on Showtime

I’ll be the first to admit: when I scheduled this review, I saw the title and completely misjudged what I thought this show was going to be about. After years of Showtime putting on shows like Weeds, Shameless, Ray Donovan, Dexter, and Dead Like Me, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume from a title like Years of Living Dangerously that we would get something much along those lines. Instead, Showtime is actually looking for it’s answer to HBO’s Vice with a hybrid documentary/news vehicle that takes it’s reporters to far away places for some in-depth journalism.

Years of Living Dangerously takes a different tack to the science based  show. We instead get a mix between Vice and Nova, with a little sensationalism thrown in for good measure. Much as Fox’s Cosmos is focused on physics, Years of Living Dangerously focuses on the effects of climate change. However, what makes Years of Living Dangerously different from it’s forbears is the use of celebrity correspondents, putting movie stars like Don Cheadle and Harrison Ford on the ground to report on the night’s stories.

I find that with Years of Living Dangerously, the quality of the stories tends to vary wildly. Thomas Friedman gets pulled into the ecological roots of the Syrian revolution, only to end up with a story that focuses more on the revolution itself than the ecology that led to it (in fact, outside of some background with NSA chief Susan Rice about the National Security concerns of climate change, it’s the by far the least science oriented story of the three). While the reporting is obviously top notch as a human interest story (it doesn’t hurt that Friedman is a journalist by trade), it also felt like it the story hit best when it was a story of the human toll of revolution, as opposed to really explaining how climate change started a revolution (some more background on the revolution itself would have been nice).

Don Cheadle, meanwhile ended up with the strongest of the night’s stories: a piece about how the drought is affecting middle American towns, and how to explain to them that the drought that caused the towns main industry to dry up was the cause of climate change, not an act of god. This story works in part because Cheadle is very comfortable letting the story be of his subjects instead of making himself the story (more on that later). Furthermore, more than most, the story has a clear coherent beginning and end, with a great takeaway (namely, that the messenger matters more than you would think).

At the other extreme, is Harrison Ford’s story. Whereas Cheadle and Friedman are essentially themselves, one gets the vibe that Harrison Ford is trying to slip into some sort of character, asking condescending questions and generally using a voice that sounds like Batman, Rohrschach, or any number of other loose cannon heroes. Making matters worse is the shows insistence of building to an event (Ford’s confrontation with the Indonesian forestry minister) that never actually occurs. It’s the sort of thing that grates enough, but also makes you glad that the show opted to rotate between beats on it’s three major stories, as twenty minutes of Ford playing an action-hero with a journalism day job is the sort of thing that will distract from the show’s key message (or worse yet force people to tune out due to excessive sanctimony).

The Final Verdict: Years of Living Dangerously is a mixed bag. On one hand, the show has a very deft touch with adding an emotional dimension to what could easily veer into dry territory. On the other hand, Years quality will seem to vary wildly depending on who is telling these stories– it’s no surprise that the show’s best moments come from people who have experience with journalism or the documentary format. The documentary is also the rare show that really doesn’t fit well in my ratings system: I’d say check it out, but if they ever release the individual stories as an anthology of mini-documentaries, it might be a better way of absorbing Years.