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Nature is trying to kill us, and these people are trying to stop it

Nature is trying to kill us, and these people are trying to stop it
In the "Water Apocalypse" episode of NatGeo's Breakthrough, Arturo Vittori and architecture students assemble a water tower in an Ethiopian village. 
(Photo by Brendan Bannon/National Geographic Channels)

Six Hollywood icons tell six stories of the scientists who are doing work that’s changing and saving lives. That’s National Geographic’s new series Breakthrough.

It debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET with Peter Berg’s “Fighting Pandemics,” though you can watch the entire premiere below right now. It’s part of NatGeo’s cross-platform promotion of its ambitious new series. (The network has also given me 10 one-year subscriptions to the magazine to give away; enter on Facebook or on Twitter.)

Also directing episodes are Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti, Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Brett Ratner will all direct an episode, which the network says are “about scientific explorers from leading universities and institutions, and how their cutting-edge innovations and advancements will change our lives in the immediate future and beyond”—with an emphasis on “compelling human drama.”

Real-life science drama

The first episode of Breakthrough is compelling nonfiction. However, in “Fighting Pandemics,” which focuses on the Ebola outbreak, Peter Berg gives a lot of attention and time to staged scenes of people dying and bleeding. Dripping and pouring blood is featured prominently and repeatedly.

The real, non-staged scenes are also showy—slow motion, cutaways to b-roll close-ups, close-ups in slow motion. But it does effectively highlight and illustrate the complex and fascinating work of scientists.

One of the best parts of the episode (again, watch it below) focuses on Ian Crozier, the doctor who contracted Ebola in West Africa and recovered at Emory University. Berg’s direction backs way off here, allowing Crozier to tell his story and, in a very compelling moment, meet Jill Morgan, one of his nurses, in the very room where he was treated. She tells him about things he didn’t remember, and it’s sobering. I wanted even more of those kinds of first-person narratives.

The series was “developed by National Geographic Channel and GE,” according to the network’s press release, which may explain the GE executive, equipment, and logo prominently featured at the end of the first episode. Executive producer Kurt Sayenga said this summer at the Television Critics Association press tour that the quality of the episodes “wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration, basically, of National Geographic and GE, because GE’s resources helped us a lot.”

Asked by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Rob Owen if GE had editorial control over content, Sayenga said no, but qualified that slightly: “No, not really, although, they are seeing it. But the journalistic integrity of the show is pretty much overseen by National Geographic, and they have a very highly thorough S&P departments, Standards and Practices, who reviews everything. And that’s also something I’m very sensitive to, as well. So my major mission has been scientific accuracy, and GE has certainly been onboard with that. They actually haven’t been intrusive in this process at all.”

Watch Fighting Pandemics

The Peter Berg-directed premiere episode of National Geographic’s Breakthrough.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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