Nat Geo at TCA: Michelle Yeoh, Ryan Reynolds, James Cameron, "Titanic" and Much More

By Behind the Scenes in Hollywood Archives
Cover image for  article: Nat Geo at TCA: Michelle Yeoh, Ryan Reynolds, James Cameron, "Titanic" and Much More

Pasadena, CA -- Only during jam-packed days at the twice-yearly Television Critics Association tours can you go in a matter of minutes from looking at the back end of a hippo to a serious discussion about how Anne Frank and her family hid during World War II to a conversation with one of the world's top directors about a controversial sequence in a classic motion picture. Critics were engaged by all of that and much, much more last week during National Geographic's portion of the Winter 2023 TCA tour.

The day began on a light note with Chris Albert, head of PR for Disney Branded Television and National Geographic, welcoming the critics -- to a response expected in a crypt. "Oh, come on," Albert prompted, smiling. "It's Friday, and you're in this ballroom of this used-to-be-five-star hotel. Good morning. It really is so nice to be back in person. I know a lot of people say it, but I truly mean it. I love TCA, and I love getting to see all of you. It makes me so happy. Hopefully, the feeling is mutual." And with that, a busy day began, with panels for upcoming shows on Disney, Freeform, Disney+ and Nat Geo.

The Nat Geo shows included American Born Chinese, a series weaving Chinese mythology into a contemporary high school student's life featuring Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and Daniel Wu that will debut this spring. "It was a good choice to do something like this and to play a very iconic role, the Goddess of Mercy," Yeoh said. "Whoa -- a lot of pressure, but it was cool."

The popular graphic novel came out in 2006, "and to go from there to here is absolutely mind-blowing," said its creator Gene Luen Yang. "I actually did American Born Chinese as a Xeroxed comic. So, I would finish a chapter, I'd take it to my local Kinko's -- remember Kinko's? -- I would Xerox copies. I would staple it by hand, and I'd sell like 16 copies. It would be like 15 of my friends and my mom would buy it. So, to go from there to here is really crazy. "

For the youngest audience, Ayo Davis, President of Disney Branded Television, reminded writers, "Disney Junior has been the No. 1 dedicated preschool network for ten consecutive years. And I am so excited to share that currently, we are the No. 1 network on all of cable for kids ages two to five."

When Courteney Monroe (pictured above), president National Geographic Content, took the stage, a world map (in yellow, of course) showed where the network has productions in the works -- on all seven continents, the deep of the oceans and outer space. Monroe introduced a clip with a familiar voice narrating. Announcing the greenlighting of Underdogs from Ryan Reynolds, Monroe explained the actor will narrate the ten episodes. Filming around the world, it promises to be a fun take on nature series, and that's where we saw the back end of a hippo.

"Whatever you do, try not to think of fish swimming up the hippo's butt," Reynolds said.

(Spoiler alert: It's impossible.)

Before presenting panels for the day, Monroe cited upcoming projects, including documentaries along the lines of 9/11: One Day in America, which won two documentary Emmy Awards. JFK's assassination and the Jonestown mass suicides will be the next two deep dives into watershed days that changed America.

"We are also moving forward with another new recurring documentary franchise series -- the final title is still to come ‑‑ chronicling the biggest natural disasters of the past century," Monroe said. "Our first two seasons will focus on the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina and will be timed to both of their upcoming 20th anniversaries."

The day also included a panel with the Central Park birder talking about his new series, Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper (premiering June 17).

While natural world shows are the imprimatur of National Geographic -- incidentally, these presentations occurred on the 135th anniversary of National Geographic Society's founding -- the network broke into scripted series with the Genius franchise six years ago. Its upcoming tentpole project, A Small Light, an eight-part scripted series, premieres this spring. It tells the story of Miep Gies, who protected Anne Frank and her family during the war. Though the family survived through D-Day in the cramped attic, they were captured. All but the patriarch, Otto Frank, perished.

We know of Anne Frank's diary because Miep saved it and presented it to Otto. Liev Schreiber portrays the German businessman.

"One of the things that Joan (Rater) and Tony (Phelan) did so well, that I was nervous about in the beginning, was how contemporary they wanted it to feel," Schreiber said of the wife and husband co-creators, showrunners and executive producers. "In that situation, as an actor, you're looking for those details of character and humanity that aren't the things you would typically see in a historical narrative."

At the end of an unusual dry day in a drenching week in southern California, Monroe mentioned plans for celebrating Earth Day. This includes an installment of the natural history series Secrets of the Elephants(April 21). Executive producer James Cameron took the stage after an AFI event. The Academy Award winner, whose sequel Avatar: The Way of Water is another box office monster hit, spoke about some of his passions -- bees and penguins. Spend a little time listening to the man and it's clear he's motivated by many interests.

"Through National Geographic and my relationship as an explorer-at-large, I've gotten to work on these other amazing projects as an executive producer, and I'm thrilled by that," Cameron said. "And what draws me to it is my endless curiosity and fascination with the natural world and my awe of nature and how it works."

Monroe also shared news about another of his specials, Titanic: 25 years Later with James Cameron airing February 5. Since fans had debated the famous scene of the young lovers in the icy waters, Cameron re-examined it, through a scientific approach. He studied the science behind whether Jack and Rose could have fit on that slab of wood -- it was not a door, Cameron stressed -- and survive those frigid waters. The findings made from monitoring swimmers who plunged into bone-numbing waters will be revealed on the special.

Cameron is clearly excited about all of this, to which Monroe noted, "You are a scientist at heart."

"I'm a science groupie," he replied. And so were a number of journalists in the room by the end of Nat Geo's presentations. How could they not be?

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