A Genuine Gent
Martin Clunes enthusiastically explores America’s rich diversity in the new travel series Martin Clunes’ Islands of America.
"Watch your back, Ed Sheeran," Martin Clunes quips in one of the first scenes of Martin Clunes' Islands of America, as he wraps up a spirited ukulele duet with Hawaiian-born virtuoso Taimane Gardnerik.
His cheeky grin spreads across the screen, a vast departure from what television viewers typically see when tuning into a show in which the London-born actor stars, such as the crime drama Manhunt or medical comedy/drama Doc Martin.
"It was really a no-brainer to acquire this show when it was offered to us by Acorn TV," says Dwayne Bright, Senior Director of Programming and Scheduling for Public Media Group of Southern California, who is airing the show on KCET and LinkTV.
"Doc Martin is one of the most popular shows on our air," he continues, "I know the audience loves Martin Clunes. We're bringing viewers more of what they love.
"But in Islands of America, he's more than just a host. He's very interactive. People mostly see him as a curmudgeon character on Doc Martin, but here they'll see him much more relaxed … More like he's on vacation. They'll see a different side of Martin Clunes."
The four-part miniseries follows Clunes on a 10,000-mile journey along America's coasts, from Hawaii and Alaska to Puerto Rico and Maine. Along the way, he interacts with a diverse group of citizens, highlighting their different cultures and histories and shattering his own biases about Americans.
"He meets a lot of locals," Bright notes, "and he's very interested and engaged in what they're saying and the stories they're relating to him. He seems genuinely interested in their lives, and it really comes across on the screen."
In the first episode, Clunes flies to Hawaii, where he starts his journey on the tourist-filled island of Oahu. He explores the world's largest Hawaiian, (or Aloha, as viewers learn they should be called) shirt shop. He then visits Taimane and learns the history of the ukulele.
Perhaps the most humbling portion of the episode is his fly-over of the Kilauea volcano, where he witnesses the historic eruption that destroyed the homes of so many islanders.
Shifting gears completely, Clunes then travels 2,500 miles north to Alaska's remote Kodiak Island where he searches for brown bears.
After waiting to spot the majestic animals, he faces a harsh reality as he comes across the remnants of a slaughtered bear. Not one to sugarcoat his opinions, Clunes doesn't hesitate to emotionally condemn the practice of trophy hunting.
The second episode sees Clunes celebrate the Fourth of July on the San Juan Islands in Washington State and then head to California's Channel Islands, where he views both an over-abundance of one species - one of the world's most numerous colonies of seals and sea lions - as well as a shortage of another - an endangered fox population.
Clunes then moves on to Louisiana, where he visits the Tabasco hot-sauce plant on Avery Island and explores Delacroix Island, which suffered a devastating blow from Hurricane Katrina.
Episode three takes Clunes to the sandy beach islands of Puerto Rico, where he eagerly tastes the local rum and learns how to salsa dance from the locals.
After heading to the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, Clunes interacts with a group of Geechee, descendants of African slaves who are fighting to preserve their traditions and heritage.
In North Carolina, he learns about the famous lost colony of Roanoke before heading a bit north to Chincoteague, Virginia. There he is lucky enough to witness one of the area's most awe-inspiring events - the wild pony swim across the Assateague Channel.
The last part of the miniseries is one of the more emotional, as Clunes proves he's willing to immerse himself into any experience for the good of the show.
Despite his fear of heights, he ascends to the 103rd floor of the Empire State Building in Manhattan and authentically suffers a bout of vertigo while looking over the railing.
While in New York, he also tours Ellis Island, where he traces his ancestors and attempts to complete a "mental agility test" given to new citizens wishing to enter the United States. In addition, he samples the rides and foods of New York's Coney Island amusement park.
Clunes finishes up his travels in Massachusetts and Maine, stopping at Martha's Vineyard, searching for great white sharks off of the coast of Cape Cod where the movie Jaws was filmed, and ending on the Isle au Haut, one of Maine's most remote islands.
It is there that he finishes his journey with a group of elementary students, moved by how they seem to enjoy life's most simple pleasures.
"He's really the best travel companion," says Bright, when asked about host Clunes. "He's game for everything. And along the way, you experience different landscapes and encounter different types of wildlife … There's so much to be experienced with this series."
As a native New Yorker, Bright is particularly impressed by Clunes' trip to the Empire State Building: "The fact that he went to the Empire State Building - the 103rd floor, which most people don't have access to …
"It's outside, and there's only a thin rail that separates you from going overboard. He actually faced his fear of heights. That was such a great thing."
Ed Sheeran, he is not. But while his musical talents might leave something to be desired, Clunes' departure from serious characters into the role of travel host is genuine and refreshing. Clunes has a sincere curiosity about the islands he visits, and a natural rapport with the people he encounters.
"It's really fun, but it's also a very informative series," Bright says, "I can't stress that enough. It's engaging, but it's so informative. You learn so much about the unique islands on America's coast."
Martin Clunes' Islands of America premiered on KCET March 8th at 8:00 pm.m PT in Southern California, and will stream simultaneously on YouTube TV. Following the broadcast, the episodes will stream for seven days at kcet.org/islandsofamerica.
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