A queen locked in a bloody war against her power-hungry daughter. A grande dame struggling to keep her subjects alive. A princeling abducted from his parents by a jealous emperor.
Each could easily be subplots in Game of Thrones, but these stories instead make up three of the five episodes in BBC America's new nature documentary series, Dynasties. Cleverly focusing on the ruling family unit as it exists in nature, the show's twist on the natural history genre makes Dynasties as gripping as any human royal drama, fictional or otherwise.
Four years in the making, Dynasties comes from the same group behind the beloved productions Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Each of the five hour-long episodes are presented by the inimitable 92-year-old David Attenborough, and will be simulcast beginning Saturday across the BBC America, AMC, IFC, and SundanceTV channels. Specifically, Dynasties zeroes in on five different animal "characters": Charm the lioness; David the chimpanzee; Raj Bhera the tigeress; and Tait and Blacktip the painted wolves. There's also a colony of emperor penguins.
But unlike other nature documentaries that dutifully narrate the onscreen action, Dynasties, as the name suggests, applies a monarchical frame to its animal matriarchs and patriarchs. "We join each family at a crucial moment in their lives, when they're battling against the odds, fighting for survival against the elements and against rivals," Attenborough explains in the show's intro. And because of the incredible access the videographer teams had with their subjects — several of the episodes took two years to complete — Dynasties makes you feel as if you know David and Blacktip the way you know Catelyn Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. (Hyenas, which appear as the villains in two of the episodes, are undoubtedly the White Walkers in this analogy).
Dynasties describes itself as being "natural history's biggest drama," and while the project is documentarian, it is as much a soap opera as nonfiction. The series begins with "Lions," set in Kenya's Masai Mara, where the Marsh Pride has been abandoned by all its adult males. It falls on the old "dame" Charm and her cousin, Sienna, to secure their dynasty's future by keeping alive the youngsters, who can't yet fend for themselves. By naming the lions and presenting their strife in human terms, though, Dynasties makes it impossible to be unmoved by the stakes.
Certain editorial touches also help to build up the drama around the animals. Several episodes use illustrations to map territories like they're kingdoms; the painted wolf episode, for example, shows the geographic boundaries of rival pack territories as well as the bordering "lion pridelands" and "hyena clanlands." Likewise, the excellent score by composer Benji Merrison provides a tone for the show that is as sweeping and epic as anything in Game of Thrones. Even BBC America couldn't quite resist the comparison between the animal dynasties and the families of Westeros:
The royal framing device is such a natural fit for the animal narratives that I'm almost surprised this is the first time it's been done. Rather than get too cutesy with it, though, Dynasties uses specific events in the animals' lives to dramatize their leadership (keeping in mind the product we get to see is a tightly-edited 60 minutes of a year or more of shooting). When the tiger Raj Bhera's daughter, Solo, enters Raj's territory with the intent of claiming it as her own — a natural process that's the result of shrinking territory — Dynasties portrays Solo as an ambitious and dangerous usurper. Likewise, when Blacktip drives on her war party in pursuit of her mother, even when it means venturing into the dangerous lion pridelands, it's hard not to see hubris. Attenborough encourages the comparisons: David the chimpanzee "must be political to hold onto power," Attenborough observes of the male chimp's tendency to form coalitions with other males.
It is tricky not to be completely seduced by Dynasties' narrative. When you are, though, the show will cruelly remind you that it is not The Lion King. That blood isn't fake, and with the exception of one extreme case, the videographers are forced to be passive witnesses to everything that unfolds. In typical Attenborough fashion, the series is unflinching in its portrayal of nature being nature. A hyena attack on a painted wolf pack is as horrifying as the Red Wedding, while a disaster involving a crevasse and baby penguins challenges avian parents to make a heart-wrenching choice. "I know it's natural, but it's bloody hard to watch," a tearful videographer says in the series' final "On Location" segment. It is a fitting warning. If you stream this show, be prepared to cry.
Thankfully, as hard as Dynasties can sometimes be to watch, it is as addictive as any scripted prestige drama. And like the best shows, it is constructed to tell us something about ourselves — perhaps that our foibles and triumphs are not anymore grand than those of painted wolves or penguins. Neither, it seems to suggest, are the qualities that make great leaders so different across the abysses between our species. The dedication of Raj Bhera, the devotion of the emperor penguins, and the perseverance of David aren't just narrative constructions; Dynasties makes them role models. And long may they reign.