Since the success of The Civil War last fall, PBS has looked for another history lesson to call all those Nielsen families back to the electronic hearth, and Land of the Eagle may do it. It’s big (a four-night, eight-hour natural history of North America from the 16th century to the present), ambitious in scope, and gorgeously filmed. It’s also politically correct: Native Americans get joint custody of the historical narration along with trappers, settlers, missionaries, and conquistadors, and nearly every segment hammers home messages about how European settlers robbed and ravaged native cultures.
But Land of the Eagle is more concerned with other oppressed minorities — manatees and beavers, egrets and indigo snakes, snow geese, spoonbills, and spider crabs. This is the Illustrated History of What Man Ate, Skinned, Displaced, Hunted, and Accidentally Stepped On. History may be the wrong word for it; Land of the Eagle is at its weakest when trying to enfold its descriptions of natural life into a chronology of destruction. (Although there’s a vague order to the narrative, the shows can be viewed in any sequence.) What this show is really about is nature photography — eight hours of state-of-the-art footage of authentically busy beavers, hatching alligators, tunneling tortoises, colonizing prairie dogs, mating crabs, and dating herons. It’s hard to imagine a child or adult who won’t be fascinated by at least some of this — or moved by the environmental message implicit in almost every scene. Land of the Eagle repeats in its entirety on Thanksgiving Day; parents, start your VCRs. A-