Thank God there are celebrities to remind us what a nice place planet Earth is, or we’d really be ****ing the place up. Environmentalism is the ideal cause for the famous: Attractive people look good in spectacular natural settings, and there’s nothing like a resonant, well-modulated voice to remind you that your great-grandchildren will be crawling across a parched and baking desert, competing with cockroaches for the remaining shreds of edible plant life, and that there’s not a whole hell of a lot you can do about it.
A new four-part series about the “unsettling transformations” taking place in the environment, PBS’s Strange Days on Planet Earth, begins tonight with two back-to-back segments (starting at 9 p.m. ET), the first on the effect of “invader” plant and animal species, the second about global warming. (Tomorrow night’s back-to-back segments will discuss predators and toxic oceans.) In the voice-over narration that frames the documentary, Edward Norton (who, to be fair, really walks the walk as an environmental activist) addresses us from a folding lawn chair set up on a suburban cul-de-sac, invoking such biblical threats as “vanishing polar ice, coral reefs as dead as bleached bones, frogs that are both male and female.” The contrast between Norton’s sterile surroundings and the fearsome future he invokes is no doubt meant to suggest that Americans feel too safe in their distance from impending global disaster. But for all its alarmism, Strange Days is oddly noncommittal—and apolitical—when it comes to solutions.
The news from the front is unremittingly bleak, and often quite interesting, in a PBS-factoid kind of way. Ninety-nine percent of the marine life in San Francisco Bay came there from somewhere else, carried in the ballast water of cargo ships. A change in ocean temperature of as little as 1 degree can eliminate entire species of sea dwellers, upsetting the food chain in incalculable ways. But despite these unsettling facts, the first segment, “Invader Species,” ends with a vague exhortation for us to—what exactly? Hew more closely to the FDA ban on transporting vegetables to Canada? The show’s view of the power of activism seems almost that limited, as Norton asks in voice-over, “What is it worth to be more cautious in our individual actions as travelers and consumers? What will it cost us not to?” over a stagy visual montage of people dragging living things around—pigs, goldfish in bowls, watermelons—in little red wagons.
The end of the global warming episode is even more disappointingly wishy-washy: “How should this new view of Earth change the way you live?” asks Norton, only to respond rhetorically: “I can’t tell you that. That choice is up to you.” Come on, Ed—come over to my house and force me to install solar panels! Confiscate my hair spray! Egg my SUV! I know you’ve got a little Tyler Durden in you yet!
For all its complacency and hand-wringing, Strange Days on Planet Earth is a scientific achievement on par with Darwin’s Origin of Species when watched alongside MTV’s Trippin’, (Mondays at 10:30 p.m. ET), a new half-hour series that accompanies Cameron Diaz and her celebrity friends on feel-good junkets through endangered yet photogenic spots like Honduras and the Chilean rain forest. Trippin’ is about ecology in the same way that Charlie’s Angels is about feminism—it obliquely reminds you how kick-ass it would be if the problem didn’t exist in the first place, while simultaneously allowing you to watch blond girls take their clothes off. The Charlie’s Angels connection makes it all the more fitting that last week’s episode featured Diaz’s fellow angel, Drew Barrymore. Together, the two marveled at the radical simplicity of the indigenous Chilean people (this show’s condescension toward the “exotic” communities it visits could be the subject of an entire doctoral dissertation) while discoursing on the importance of buying recycled toilet paper.
Barrymore is a 30-year-old woman, and Diaz is 32—a fact I mention only to contextualize such dialogue as:
(During a canoe trip after a campout):
Barrymore: I took a poo in the woods hunched over like an animal … awesome.
Diaz: (laughing) I’m so jealous right now. I’m going to the woods tomorrow.
Barrymore: It was awesome.
After the two return from separate guided hikes:
Diaz: Did you learn so much?
Barrymore: Oh my God yeah. So intense … with the loving and feeling and tree-touching and the learning.
At one point, an unnamed tour guide (all the unfamous people on Trippin’ are unnamed, except for the Exotic Brown Person of the week) tells the girls that every second, the Chilean rain forest loses an area equal to two football fields. A similar process seems to be at work in Drew Barrymore’s brain, as she visibly decompensates during the course of her journey. Reaching the top of the hill after one ecotourist trek, Drew’s only response to the gorgeous vista before her is to burst into uncontrollable laughter—not a “witnessing the simple joy of God’s creation” laughter, more like a “peaking on Ecstasy” kind of laughter. Watching her dissolve over and over again, able to repeat only, “I’ve got the giggles. I’ve got the giggles,” I felt a special new brand of embarrassment I’ve never experienced before—one obviously shared by her baffled guides, one of whom asked, “I don’t see what’s so funny out there. Could you show me?”
As Drew bumbled through one Jessica Simpson moment after another—approaching an elegant Chilean gentleman to ask for “Uno foto, per favor?” or complimenting her hosts’ cooking with the utterance, “Es comida, es muy delicioso,” I found myself wishing that she, and not Diaz, were the show’s returning host—she could be the dumb blonde ambassador of our nation. At least it would give a whole new meaning to the title Trippin.’