Want to get smarter? Watch TV.
Seriously. But not necessarily "seriously."
There's fun to be had, too, in a new flurry of TV DVD sets that explore people, places and concepts in nonfiction fashion.
DVDs released on Tuesday:
BIG HISTORY (List price $30 DVD/$40 Blu-ray, Lionsgate). Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") narrates History's flashy fast-forward through "epic connections that link events on a global scale." The series illustrates a "new way to see the world" that blends sciences, humanities and more into "webs" of far-reaching innovation and progress. Its 16 half-hour episodes weave their own fast-moving tapestry using zooming animation, live-action re-creations and experts' concise explanations. Their relentless pace of editing is clearly designed to engage restless minds.
The first half-hour finds its jumping-off point in salt, the element whose "oversized impact on history" redraws the global map (and directly drives New York's explosive growth). Without salt, would civilization have coalesced? Other episodes radiate from the notion of horses (leading to evolutions in clothing and language), memory (it's why your phone pad looks the way it does), money, weapons and gravity.
The series' swift storytelling feels more broad than deep, but it's packed with nuggets designed to fuel further curiosity: The caffeine-fueled tea craze of the 18th century (the Boston Tea Party as "America's first drug bust") required the boiling of water, which foiled waterborne disease, which lengthened life spans, enabling a population explosion of urban workers to fuel the imminent industrial revolution.
If the episodes leave your head reeling, a 2-hour finale tries to pull it all together. And there's more online. This is part of The Big History Project envisioned by scholar David Christian and bankrolled by Bill Gates; visit bighistoryproject.com
THE SCIENCE OF MEASUREMENT ($35, Athena). Why does a pound weigh what it does, a meter stretch that far, an hour consist of 60 minutes? There's more interdisciplinary fascination here from Marcus du Sautoy, the enthusiastic Oxford professor whose other TV enlightenments include "The Story of Math" and "The Code."
His three globe-trotting hours delightfully delve into the ways we've devised to describe the scope of our universe. From primitive time to the atomic era, du Sautoy breaks it all down into digestible aspects of time, distance, weight, light, electricity and more. The set even includes a handy booklet guide.
VIKINGS ($25, BBC). Been watching History's same-named Thursday drama series? Then it's time to get real about the Norse people of the ninth century. On-camera guide Neil Oliver's ("A History of Scotland") personal odyssey details the Vikings' famed boat travels, war-waging and distant trading. He journeys east into Russia (the name comes from the Norse), south to Istanbul, west to Ireland and England (where many words have Viking origins), and, of course, throughout Scandinavia.
Oliver's first hour takes a deep dive into the Vikings' Bronze and Iron Age roots. That's followed by an hour on the impact of their "raiding and trading" throughout "the known world" and a final picturesque episode on their explorations and even pioneering statesmanship.
MORE DOCUMENTARIES ON DVD
BIBLE SECRETS REVEALED Controversial series from History is either an intriguing examination of nagging Biblical questions or a sensational debunking from nonbelievers. You decide; $15, Lionsgate.
HAWKING Stephen Hawking, party animal! Complex portrait of "the world's most famous scientist" is a first-person account of being "trapped inside my dysfunctioning body," covering both his "Brief History of Time" science book and his personal life, through his own words, vintage footage, sometimes unflattering interviews; $25, PBS.
PHOTO: HISTORY FROM BEHIND THE LENS Offbeat survey of photography's history, functions (portraits, journalism, surrealist art), technology (into digital), lots more, in 12 half-hour episodes, with guide booklet; $50, Athena.