Review: Discover Atlas: China Revealed (2006)

Note: This article was originally published in Technician on September 28, 2006.


'Discover Atlas' fascinating and balanced

Nothing seems too big for the Discovery Channel, not even the world. This Sunday, Discovery Communications will launch the first episode of Discovery Atlas, a new series that will reportedly last five years.

Billed as the network's most ambitious HD project to date, the 30-part project will provide a detailed profile of a new country every week. The series starts on a high note with Discovery Atlas: China Revealed, which focuses on the country likely to surpass the United States as a world superpower within the next 20 years.

Home to 1.3 billion people, to try and sum up China in two hours would be an impossible feat, but Discovery has managed to produce a respectable attempt. Rather than focusing solely on China as a whole or delving deep into cultural details, Discovery Atlas manages to find an appropriate line to walk between them. James Spader from Boston Legal narrates and provides all the statistics and facts one would expect from an educational program, yet the heart of the show lies in its examinations of various Chinese people from many different backgrounds and walks of life.

Some of the notable interviewees include a skyscraper window washer, a Kung Fu master and a family of rice farmers. Perhaps the most gripping tale is that of 12-year-old Jin Yang, who has been training for the Olympics since the age of two. Her performance for the selection committee will have you on the edge of your seat.

The result is that while Atlas educates, it also gives viewers human lives to relate with and explore. It is through these lives that some of the most intriguing thematic undertones arise. Should modernity replace the traditions of old? What costs are acceptable in the pursuit of a dream? Though at times a Western bias arguably creeps in, for the most part the episode remains objective and allows the viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Discovery Atlas' only major fault is that at times it gets too bogged down in the unimportant details rather than the ones that matter. As with every culture, there are some parts we prefer more than others, and Atlas explores too many topics. Viewers will probably find themselves changing the channel between segments that don't catch their fancy. However, there should at least be something for everyone to enjoy.

If the first episode is any indication, Discovery Atlas is definitely a show to keep an eye on.