In last night’s Worlds Apart, a new series on the National Geographic Channel (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET), the Dancy-Rogalski family travels from the idyllic college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., to a tribal longhouse deep in the jungles of Borneo, Malaysia. Thanks to delays during their journey upriver, Jim Rogalski, his wife, Susana Dancy, their preteen sons Marshall and Taylor, and 6-year old daughter Helen arrive in the middle of the night. They are six hours late and exhausted to the point of collapse, but their host, Iban tribesman Emong Tinsang, is not the type of man to let company go to bed without first making their animal sacrifice.
“In Iban community, we believe on spirit; we believe on dream,” says Emong. “You need to spear this pig. I’ll show you how to do that.” The Dancy-Rogalskis are stricken, and the kids, being kids, don’t try to hide it. Marshall touches his face like he’s not sure it’s still there; Helen holds hers in tiny balled fists; Taylor stuffs his fingers in his ears as if the pig’s squealing were the sound of a passing fire engine. You can tell by Susana’s staunch face that she firmly believes in the importance of being a polite guest, but until this moment this has probably meant little more than showing up to a dinner party with a nice bottle of wine.
Worlds Apart will appeal to self-hating Americans, the kind of people who would enjoy a travel and culture documentary more if it were enlivened with a little hegemonic shame. Each week, the show takes a different comfortable, middle-class American family and sends them to a hot, poor, Third World country where for a week and a half they are slapped silly by how the other half lives. At the beginning of each episode the camera tours the American family’s home, and you are cued to be embarrassed for them and their disgraceful dependence on fast food, air conditioning, and fitted sheets. Thanks to some nifty crosscutting, viewers also get a preview of how the Third World host family lives, and therein lie the seeds of the Americans’ downfall. If daughter is a picky eater, cut to shot of lumpy wheat paste. If mom likes a nice spa day, cut to her future shower, which is often nothing more than rusty bucket buzzing with flies. Worlds Apart also lets family members hang themselves with their can-do expectations. “I think I’m most looking forward to being put to the test,” says Susana, who, it turns out, does not enjoy being put to the test at all. The show doesn’t paint Americans as purposefully vapid and materialistic, but the message is that they are soft and spoiled. Not only are they in for a rude awakening, they don’t even know they’re asleep.
Worlds Apart has much to recommend it if you have ever felt bad about having it so good, but it’s an uncomfortable viewing experience because the moments I described above are played for laughs. When Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” I bet he didn’t know this truism could also be applied to sacrificing chickens. As the guest of honor, Jim Rogalski goes through at least a dozen birds during his family’s visit, which is more than enough to make for a pretty entertaining chicken-killing montage. The show often speeds up the film, loops segments to make people look like robots, and layers on ridiculous sound effects—I’ve yet to hear a boing!, but I’ve caught the slide whistle at least once—and the net effect is National Geographic by way of America’s Funniest Home Videos or Benny Hill. The laughs from these bits are hit or miss, but when they hit, they hit pretty hard. By the time Jim is shown decapitating his third or fourth chicken, it’s kind of magical that the next laugh line comes from him drowning one in a river.
I grew up on National Geographic and its kids’ publication National Geographic World, and while it’s nice to see this hoary old institution have fun with itself, I found myself missing the magazine’s beauty and sense of grandeur. In a recent episode about a family that travels to India, a teenage American girl bemoans the fact that all the village women are trying to marry her off. The show cuts to shot of a potential suitor, in this case an ancient Indian man in traditional head gear. He has the kind of iconic aboriginal face that in the magazine would inspire awe, but in this context he’s offered up as a grotesque. Fortunately, the show aims its barbs at the American families more than it does at their hosts, but I wonder why anyone has to be brought down at all.