Screen Test

A case of trying too hard?

Reality TV series Mariah's World offers nothing new or real, while documentary Savage Kingdom is overly dramatic and cliche

Two new series offer a rare glimpse of exotic creatures in their natural habitat - Savage Kingdom, following lions, hyenas and leopards across Botswana, and Mariah's World, tracking popstar Mariah Carey as she prepares to go on tour.

As with any reality-based show, the first question to ask is what is real and what has been conjured up by the film-makers.

Although some philosophers would say there is no difference between the two, the audience is clearly led to believe they are getting the real thing in Mariah's World, which purports to offer a fly-on-the-wall look at the singer's personal and professional life.

But going by the first two of the six episodes, it is doubtful if the audience ever gets to see a genuine, unscripted moment. And Carey leans into the diva archetype so hard, it is hard to tell if she knows the difference between the real and the constructed either.

The vamping for the camera never stops - you do not see her in anything less than full make-up and sky-high heels.

You are supposed to get glimpses of the real person behind the best-selling female artist of all time. And there are humanising touches - notably her adorable five-year-old twins, whom she dotes on. The viewer is often reminded she is a single mother, which is why the star lets two other single colleagues bring their kids on tour.

Carey has an endearing sense of humour, too, and obviously likes making others laugh.

Mariah Carey vamps it up on Mariah’s World (above) and Matsumi and her family hunting buffalo. PHOTO: E!

But more overt attempts to suggest her "realness" are harder to swallow.

For example, she imagines a fake news headline exaggerating her behaviour ("Mariah Carey was so upset she threw her diamonds at the wall", she says), and dons a black wig to become alter ego Bianca Storm, who intones: "The world doesn't realise how awful Mariah really is." These fall flat because they are too knowing to seem genuine.

By reality TV standards, the stakes are also exceedingly low here, with very little of importance happening.

The show tries to compensate for this by creating faux drama, casting her manager Stella as a dragon lady who goes around terrorising the crew, and exaggerating a spat between members of the entourage.

Mariah, according to Stella, is the most low-maintenance person on the tour even though she is the biggest star, but you get the sense that this is a show that wouldn't dream of suggesting otherwise.

There is little here about the singer's life that hasn't already been reported extensively on, either. For die-hard Carey fans, glancing references to her controlling ex-husband Tommy Mottola and humble beginnings offer nothing new.

There is also a half-hearted attempt to show how invested she is in all creative aspects of her tour. But this is undermined when you see her being semi-bullied into being hoisted aloft on stage despite being nervous about it and it makes you wonder.

Then again, as Carey at one point observes, a diva is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't - people want her to be accessible, but not too accessible; glamorous, but not too glamorous. This documentary tries to have it both ways, but is less successful because of it.

Mariah Carey vamps it up on Mariah’s World and Matsumi and her family hunting buffalo (above). PHOTO: BRAD BESTELINK/ICON FILMS/NHFU

Savage Kingdom does amore convincing job with its subject: five family groups of lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs whose paths collide as a river bed in Botswana runs dry and the land grows lean.

The film-makers' dedication in tracking these creatures and documenting their interactions is astounding, and the six episodes are gorgeous to look at, their stunning visuals punctuated by moments of high drama and pathos, including the killing of a leopard cub by a lioness.

But the overt Game Of Thrones narrative it superimposes on the proceedings is about as subtle and pleasant as a giant anvil to the head.

Key protagonists are given proper names - the principal lioness is Matsumi, for instance - which is fair enough, given it makes it easier to identify individuals as their stories overlap.

What seems less justified are the countless Thrones-style references that follow - Matsumi is described as the "mother of lions" and is said to ascend to power once "the old queen is dead".


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The narration is done by Charles Dance, whose wonderful baritone is used to deliver a series of lumbering, excessively solemn and overly dramatic lines, all high on cliche and low on scientific detail.

Packs of hyenas and other rival predators are referred to as "armies and murderers massing beyond the marsh", while the lion king is said to preside over "a vast empire", where "the north is vulnerable".

It gets old fast and an over-reliance of slow-motion shots weighs the story down even further.

Yet there are occasional moments of real poetry, as when a close-up of the lioness' bloody paws are accompanied by an apt description of her as "the ragged queen of the north". If you can tolerate the cringeworthy narration, these make the show worth watching.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2016, with the headline 'A case of trying too hard?'. Print Edition | Subscribe