Having seen Mount Everest up close, from the summit of the relatively diminutive 5,545-metre peak of Kala Patthar, I can testify first-hand to its imposing majesty and awe-inspiring stature. And having experienced the nausea and fatigue brought on by altitude sickness in the thin air at this height - more than 3km shy of Everest's apex - I have nothing but admiration for those who manage to summit what the Nepalis call Sagarmatha. That admiration only intensified as I watched Everest: Beyond the Limit (Discovery Channel, Tuesdays at 10pm), a six-part documentary series that follows an expedition up the mountain in April and May of last year.
Led by New Zealander Russell Brice, who has 25 years' experience scaling the peak, the dauntless group comprises 11 climbers, three professional guides, 24 Sherpas and 15 film production staff. Among the climbers shelling out about US$40,000 each to make it to the top of the world are: Terry O'Connor, an emergency-room doctor from Oregon in the US; Brett Merrell, a fireman from California making his second attempt at the summit after a failed bid in 2005; former Iron Man competitor Mogens Jensen, from Denmark; Tim Medvetz, a larger than life Californian who designs Harley-Davidsons and who vowed to climb the mountain after a near-fatal motorcycle crash; and New Zealander Mark Inglis, who had both legs removed below the knees after getting severe frostbite while climbing New Zealand's Mount Cook in 1982, and who is attempting to become the first double-amputee to summit Everest.
The first episode introduces the climbers and guides as they ascend to Advanced Base Camp, a dizzying 6,400 metres above sea level. Matters quickly turn serious when one of the Sherpas dies from altitude sickness; it's the first man Brice has lost on the mountain. Elsewhere, O'Connor is forced to put his medical training to use when a member of another team collapses with a life-threatening cerebral oedema, while the other climbers are surprised to discover just how severely the altitude and the minus 40 degree Celsius temperature can affect their bodies and minds.
For anyone with a passing interest in adventurous pursuits, Everest is a fascinating look at one of the most extreme journeys on Earth. For anyone who's travelled to the region, however, the show is likely to bring thoughts and feelings surging back, along with a yearning to return. Even if mountaineering holds little appeal, it's worth watching the first episode for one scene alone: when Inglis supplies Teelay, an old Sherpa friend of his who also lost both legs to frostbite, with a pair of prosthetic limbs and teaches him to walk. 'This is one of the best moments of my life,' says a teary-eyed Inglis as Teelay takes his first, poignant steps.
Over on Star Movies, a journey of a different kind begins this week in On the Lot. This new show, from director Steven Spielberg and reality-television guru Mark Burnett, gives aspiring filmmakers the chance to compete for a US$1 million development deal at DreamWorks. The format will be familiar to fans of American Idol, with competitors' short films screening on Tuesdays from May 29 (9pm, then 8pm from June 5); viewers then vote for their favourite flick before Wednesday's results show (starting May 30 at 9pm, then 8.30pm from June 6), which sees the director with the lowest-rated effort sent packing.
The series launches with two hour-long episodes (Wednesday and Friday at 9pm) that document the process by which the final contestants were chosen. From more than 12,000 entries, we begin with 50 semifinalists, who must pitch their film project to a panel of celebrity judges, shoot and edit a short film in 24 hours then film a one-page scene in no more than one hour. The judging panel, who must whittle the field down to a final 18, comprises directors Jon Avnet (Red Corner), Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) and Brett Ratner (X Men: The Last Stand), as well as actress-turned-author Carrie Fisher.
Sure to be a touch more cerebral than the virtually indistinguishable glut of singing- and modelling-based shows that pepper the schedules, On the Lot should make for interesting viewing - and the prospect of uncovering the next Martin Scorsese or David Lynch is a good deal more enticing than finding the next soulless pop clone.
Also kicking off this week is Ghost Whisperer (Star World, today at 9pm), a supernatural drama series that sees Jennifer Love Hewitt star as Melinda Gordon, a newlywed who can see and communicate with the spirits of the dead. Gordon uses this spooky power to help restless wraiths complete unfinished business so they can move on to the afterlife.
The first episode sees Gordon and her paramedic husband, Jim Clancy (David Conrad, Roswell), moving into their home in the quiet town of Grandview. (The town might look familiar - the show uses the same set as the Back to the Future trilogy.) The couple have barely been there five minutes, however, before the ghost of an American soldier who died in Vietnam (Wentworth Miller, Prison Break, above with Hewitt) shows up asking for help.
Based on the experiences of real-life spirit communicator Mary Ann Winkowski and owing a debt to The Sixth Sense, Ghost Whisperer is an entertaining show that pushes all the right buttons. Although similar in concept to Medium, it is easily the better of the two thanks largely to Hewitt. I'd happily watch her alluring form if it was in a dog-food commercial, but her experience of scary scenarios (I Know What You Did Last Summer and its sequel) and of TV drama (Party of Five) seems to have stood her in good stead to play Gordon, and the character is instantly likeable. The plot structure, meanwhile, whereby Gordon meets a new ghost/guest star every week and solves their problem, makes this an easy show to watch and means you needn't tune in every week to follow events - although if you do miss an episode, Ghost Whisperer will also be showing on ATV World on Thursdays, starting from June 7.
With so many French-themed activities and events going on around town this month, it would be remiss of me not to finish with a touch of Gallic flair, courtesy of [V] Special: Le French May (Channel V, Monday at 8pm). VJ Marion travels to Paris to sample the best of French culture and enjoys tete-
a-tetes with some of France's modern musical maestros, including house duo Daft Punk, chanteuse Emilie Simon and bossa nova quintet Nouvelle Vague. Anyone who saw the latter two acts perform in Hong Kong this month will know they offer extreme aural pleasure - even if our venues insist audiences express their admiration sitting obediently in neat rows. Pourquoi? Je ne sais pas ...