In Brazil with Michael Palin, the BBC's default celebrity tourist pulls out the khaki slacks and shoulder bag for another trip, having discovered a portion of the globe as yet unwebbed by the little dotted lines with which travel programmes like to plot out their journeys. "How can I say I've seen the world when I haven't seen Brazil?" he asked in the title sequence, after a short litany of superlatives that sounded as if they'd come from one of those editorial supplements bigging up the investment opportunities of a developing country. Brazil, he explained, is now a 21st-century superpower, the fifth largest country on earth. Which made it all the stranger that what followed seemed almost completely insulated from the present day.
It was depressingly like a royal tour, in fact – a succession of polite encounters with the folkloric in which Palin played the role of the Queen, smilingly graciously as enthusiastic dancers strutted their stuff in front of him, fulfilling the national stereotype of a people born to samba. Palin started in São Luis by watching the preparations for a Bumba-Meu-Boi festival, diverting briefly to visit a colonial ghost town and get a tutorial on Brazilian voyeurist slang at a local beach, before heading back for the main event. "Their performance is fantastic," he said obligingly as everybody partied down, though given the somewhat free-form nature of the dance it was hard to believe that he'd have known if it wasn't.
In the absence of any larger theme, it was really only that graphic dotted line that held the programme together, linking a landscape excursion here (the sand-dune lakes of the Lencois Maranhenses) to a city visit there. And it couldn't honestly be said that the sights were all that spectacular. Arriving in Recife, Palin assured us that it boasted "an increasingly lively cultural scene", a promise that was backed up with an interview with a local graffiti artist and a visit to a harbour-front sculpture park, including a memorial to torture victims ("It's very powerful," murmured Palin obligingly, feeling the weight of his host's expectations). Then he went off to look at an old steam train in Recife's former railway station, presumably because the local tourist board had run out of suggestions.
Palin is, famously, very nice. You can tell that he is here. But the truth is that you just can't make travel programmes like this any more, as if package tours were still a novelty. Younger pretenders – like Simon Reeve – have shown that it's possible to knit a backpacker informality together with real journalism about how countries work, and that the result will be considerably more interesting to watch. You also need to do more with the script than deliver guidebook captions to the pictures. The city of Serrita, did you know, "is the undisputed jewel of the north-east", while in Bahia sugar cane still contributes to "a buoyant local economy". By the end, after too much of that kind of prose, one too many long-lens sunsets and what seemed like unending Candomblé ceremonies and capoeira demonstrations, I was beginning to dread the sound of drums and dream of home.
Prehistoric Autopsy, a three-part series on palaeoanthropology, exemplifies a common mistake on the part of television producers. The presentation is very glitzy, with a mocked-up science lab and presenters strolling around from work desk to work desk as if the whole thing is a live broadcast. But its best content is very scholarly, coming down to the unravelled implications of pelvic morphology or the inner-structures of ancient wrist bones. The mistake is the first bit, incidentally. The audience for whom this is engrossing subject matter really don't give a damn what the set looks like. And the audience for whom it isn't aren't going to be persuaded to watch however sci-fi you make things look. The bare bones are what matter.