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This massive documentary set isn't a full-blown classic, though it sometimes truly has the feel of one....
A&E / 552 Minutes / 2012 / Unrated / Street Date: December 18, 2012
Swinging wide, like Planet Earth or Life did, Mankind: The Story of Us actually aims to sum up the life and times of homo sapiens in twelve short episodes. And what a saga it is: tracing early roots through various cultures and historical epochs, Mankind is often wonderfully exciting to watch. It's not the savviest multi-part TV documentary ever made, but there's definitely some magic in it.
Its Achilles heel is its structure. Planet Earth had the advent of using seasons as a narrative barometer - as summer changed to fall, so did the feel and look of the series. In Mankind, if you marathon episodes, it starts to feel like the same installment over and over, only with slightly different footage. I suppose this is a pitfall to any grandiose tale like this one, but that's definitely the feeling a doc like this one inspires.
Yet Mankind's ambition keeps things wholly watchable throughout. While never quite as visually enthralling as it could have been, the series nevertheless has a rapturous aura to it - for better or for worse, it feels bigger than it is. Broken down, it has the shape of just another long History Channel special, but as it unfolds, there are occasional nuggets of magic that really work. It makes it almost worth the ride.