TV Review : Sound Bites, Graphics Demystify 'Senses'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can only hear and see author-poet Diane Ackerman's globe-trotting, five-part "Nova" series, "Mystery of the Senses," but in its most telling moments, it provides the illusion of touch, smell and feel as well.

For some, Ackerman's series, based on her book "The Natural History of the Senses," will touch the sense of past memory. For others, this whole series will smell like a giant PBS leisure trip masquerading as a science show. For others, it will feel like the ultimate crowd-pleasing attempt to woo anti-science viewers into watching our biology at work.

It is, at the very least, not quite like anything else on the air.

Beginning Sunday with the segment on hearing, Ackerman sets the series' tone with her close-up, intimate narration (hers is the manner of a humanist and far from a techie scientist). Her eyes virtually alight with excitement at the mention of a sense--especially the taste of chocolate--and the obviously generous production budget has allowed her to explore underseas, roam Belgian cities in search of dessert, or travel to a hot spa for a luscious mud bath. Ackerman is one host who loves lusciousness.

Above all, "Mystery of the Senses" is deceptively titled--it actually demystifies the senses, explaining in quick sound bites and colorful graphics how the body and brain interact to produce each of the five key sensations.

From neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran explaining the phenomenon of "phantom limbs" to neurophysiologist S. Allen Counter studying and treating hearing loss among Inuit hunters in the quiet northern Arctic, Ackerman's guests have one foot in some aspect of brain research and one foot in the world of people trying to survive--often with one of their senses missing.

Just at about the time you're put off by Ackerman's borderline New Age presentation and narration style, a person living with hearing loss or one with brain damage affecting visual memory will enter this story, and add great human texture to what could be highly abstract material.

And yet, because it comes across as Ackerman's great sensory passion, the segment on taste (airing Tuesday) is by far the most memorable. This hour's blend of wonderful montages of a chocolate factory, the food aspects of a Mexican Day of the Dead ritual and a master French chef at work form a global celebration of food and the social dimensions involved at the tip of one's tongue.

* "Mystery of the Senses" airs Sunday through Wednesday, at 8 each night on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, and at 7 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.

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