If you scroll up far enough on your cable box, you will discover an entire channel devoted to animals. Twenty-four hours a day, it airs nonfiction concentrating on untameable beasts, predatory behavior, and exotic mating rituals, thus introducing viewers to a wide variety of freaks of nature. Oh, wait—what’s that? Sorry, correction: It seems that Fox Reality Channel has gone off the air. Farewell to a network that warmed our hearts and corroded our stomach linings with the likes of Househusbands of Hollywood and The Search for the Next Elvira.
So, the next time you try to tune in Smile … You’re Under Arrest!, you will instead find yourself watching a new network called National Geographic WILD, which insists on that all-caps blare, better to differentiate itself from the plain old National Geographic Channel. Where the original Nat Geo features nature shows as but one element in its mix—a mix including lessons in science, ancient history, and women’s prisons—NGW is all-critters-all-the-time. As such, its chief competition is the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet, a network that is just as captivating when broadcasting wholesome and edifying classics (Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) as when trafficking in the bizarre (Weird, True, and Freaky: “Meet Frankenlouie, a cat that’s as normal as a cat with two faces can be”). It does lowbrow quite well, like a broad-backed hippopotamous resting on his belly in the mud.
NGW has yet to display a sensationalistic streak as broad as Animal Planet’s. If and when it does, the channel will at least have the National Geographic logo, that rectitudinous yellow rectangle, to lend the proceedings a hint of dignity. Still, the new channel has taken a page from the established one, which sells itself with the slogan “surprisingly human.” Most of these shows about animal instincts are shows about human behavior. We’re not so different from our four-legged friends—or our eight-tentacled ones, either—with the difference that a giant octopus is not capable of wondering who the next Elvira should be, which is the upside of having a brain the size of a walnut.
Naturally, when NGW is at its most high-minded, it’s at its most … sedate. Here, I think, that is the appropriate synonym for dull. To absorb yourself in Mystery Gorillas With Mireya Mayoris to zone out on the sedateness. Evidently, tracking lowland gorillas requires a lot of patience, and Mystery Gorillas encourages the audience to cultivate that same virtue. It feels as if we spend a bit less time observing these Congolese apes than we do watching Mayor and her cheekbones and her guides step gently toward them. But once approached, the gorillas exhibit group dynamics no less compelling than those of the Jersey Shore gang, and Mayor intends to study them in new ways, for instance addressing the fact that so much primatology focuses on male behavior. “It’s only been in recent years that the question of female choice has come into the spotlight,” she says. “Do the females have a voice within this group?” They do! Yet still they earn only 73 bananas for every 100 their male counterparts are paid.
On the other, stranger hand, we get Expedition Wild. In the first episode, “Project Kodiak,” we meet Casey Anderson and his pal Brutus, a grizzly bear he’s cared for since its birth. Theirs is an intimate relationship, with a lot of nuzzling and the occasional high fives. Indeed, Anderson is so very chummy with Brutus that you quickly begin worrying that Brutus might turn Anderson into a satisfying snack, a la Grizzly Man. Or that Anderson will turn to Brutus for even greater intimacy, a la Equus. Early on, Anderson lays out a 25,000-calorie meal for Brutus. There’s chicken and steak (great), carrot cake with frosting (uh, okay), and pancakes. He lost me with the pancakes, specifically with the blueberry topping and generous swirl of Reddi-Wip.
But Anderson has grander plans for Brutus’ diet. The two venture from their Montana home up to Alaska, where Anderson will teach Brutus to get in touch with his inner fisherman and catch sockeye salmon swimming upstream. And so the episode shapes up like a kind of sports drama, with Brutus training in the East Helena City Pool as Anderson variously encourages him (“Get in there, buddy!”) and chides him for his awkward dog paddle (“You’re no Michael Phelps”). I halfway expected to hear Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Then man and beast go up to Kodiak for further training, some conducted on a waterfall that Anderson constructed for that sole purpose. Brutus ultimately catches a salmon. I fully expected Anderson to serve it to him with crème fraîche and dill.
This is weird stuff, but if you want to see some nature programming that is really weird, wonderfully weird, then you will need to get a load of Isabella Rossellini’s Seduce Me, which premieres next Tuesday on the Sundance Channel’s Web site and moves to TV next month. It is an extension of an earlier Web series called Green Porno and follows its methods. Here, narrating with her fantastic lilt and sexy syncopation while dressing up as bedbugs, jellyfish, and the like, the actress illustrates the mating habits of various beasties. So there she is in a Rachael Ray-style kitchen showing off a Michel Gondry-style paper collage of an anchovy pizza … and then, as if she has abruptly cast a spell on herself by saying the word anchovies, her eyes freeze, and she drifts into a fantasy: “If were an anchovy, I would live in a group, a school, of anchovies. The best position is to be in the middle of the group.” There she is in the middle of a group of big angular models of anchovies, wearing goggles and an anchovy headdress, punching the fake fish as she jockeys for position: “Let me in!” Rossellini, having diligently studied surrealism as practiced by directors David Lynch and Guy Maddin, proves both sinister and charming in these giddy clips. Her subconscious is on display, and it’s a jungle in there.