FALL OF THE WILD
For better or worse, the increasingly popular wildlife genre is the new CSI , writes Graeme Blundell
TELEVISION is where we look for intelligent entertainment and wish- fulfilment. And our premier storytelling medium has also become our primary source of encounters with the natural world. It’s easy to get the impression that nature exists only so that it can entertain us on TV. It’s the only place where many of us will see wild animals or wilderness. But these days most wildlife shows on TV are just that: shows, razzledazzle, theatre.
All those programs about inquisitive meerkats, fog- basking beetles and dog- paddling elephants are not scientifically accurate portrayals of wildlife but are as artificial as any episode of CSI: Miami and often just as contrived. The formula, according to the industry, is more extreme action, more youth, more humour and more ( animal) sex.
The idea of wildlife TV has evolved from its origins in 1878, when Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs of trotting and galloping horses stunned artists, scientists and critics in the US and Europe. Muybridge’s camera revealed equine bodies frozen mid- leap in positions never before detected by the human eye or captured on film.
Now anything caught on film in any wilderness anywhere turns up eventually on Animal Planet’s dedicated cable network, with its slogan ‘‘ All animals, all the time.’’ It’s the place, they like to say, where animals rule and viewers are held captive.
This week the fourth most watched cable and satellite channel in the Asia- Pacific region is changing its look, the new Animal Planet highlighting stories designed to appeal to an adult audience seeking compelling entertainment. It is a measure of just how far TV wildlife programming has been progressively absorbed into the broader category of factual entertain- ment. The new slate of shows, we’re told, will tap even deeper into the primal instincts that drive us all: maternal, survival, social, violent and sexual. ‘‘ Fascinating stories,’’ the publicity tells us, rather paradoxically, ‘‘ that resonate with what it means to be human.’’
On Animal Planet the producers love to impose human definitions of love, friendship and family happiness on wild creatures that would gobble them up if they caught them alone on the tundra. Maybe it’s a reflection of older traditions of oral and written animal fables as reflections of human society.
Certainly, the best wildlife shows do force us to evaluate the place of humans in the natural world and the amount of ecological damage, habitat destruction and pollution we cause. But altruism is not generally high on their agenda.
Nature TV is big show business these days. It’s a form of entertainment, rigorously following the established conventions, codes and ideas of narrative exposition as much as drama or comedy does. We’ve come a long way since January 1955, when Heinz Sielmann’s 20- minute film on woodpeckers was shown on British TV, revolutionising the profile of the limited wildlife programs on the BBC.
This short film on the secret life of a family of woodpeckers by the previously obscure German cinematographer was filmed with astonishing intimacy through the back of a nesting hole. It revealed aspects of the birds’ parenting behaviour never before observed by scientists, let alone by the viewing public.
But a half- century later, the boundaries between the wildlife program and other TV genres have become blurred, and the makers of natural history shows have been forced to develop new styles of character and story- driven modes of presentation.
This is the only way to engage the attention of an audience that maintains an abiding fascina-
tion with the wilderness but is unlikely to give in to that tempting desire to forsake the pressures of civilisation for the noble simplicity of the natural world.
Once wildlife TV was a quite discrete generic category, its filmmakers serious bearded people largely from the scientific community. Natural history filmmakers stressed a scientific, dispassionate approach to nature, turning a seldominterfering analytical eye on their subjects at the expense of storytelling.
Now it has been overturned by the developments within the sphere of factual documentary and the rapid proliferation of entertainmentoriented reality formats, spreading like electronic couch grass. Wildlife TV formats encompass travel and adventure, soap opera and cop shows as well as natural history. As often as not, they celebrate the circus- like antics of human performers such as Steve Irwin, as much they explore wildlife behaviour.
Herpetologist Austin Stevens, for instance, likes to eyeball king cobras or manhandle giant pit vipers, offering a breathless commentary as he pokes and prods, deliberately trying to provoke an encounter. The excitable Snakemaster is not one to emphasise caution and respect for animals.
In the transformed TV wildlife landscape, nature has a multiplicity of guises. Alongside the occasional blue chip series, high- value, meticulously observed films about individual species, epitomised by BBC1’ s wildlife specials, there are celebrity travelogues, conservation lectures, adventure and shipping yarns, and ‘‘ vets and pets’’ series such as Adventures in Doggy Daycare . I’m not a great fan of pet genre shows. But recently I have become hooked on Animal Planet’s Animal Cops Detroit , as much a descent into rural American madness and paranoia as it is natural history TV.
The show exposes the cruelty with which some animal owners treat their pets, a twisted mirror of an aberrant society with its half- naked losers and psychopaths. Some stories end happily, for instance with heartwarming efforts to reunite lost pets and their owners, but most end as badly as a James Ellroy thriller.
Animal Cops is a kind of visceral street travelogue that transports viewers to Detroit, a city where animal crimes revolve around dogfighting, pets exposed to the elements, animal neglect and the occasional abused reptile. Michigan Humane Society- Detroit investigators respond to almost 5000 animal cruelty incidents a year and Animal Cops has unprecedented access to each story, as well as follow- ups on the fate of the perpetrators.
Like so many of the shows on Animal Planet, this series is an often unsettling combination of emergency- room thriller, police procedural and elegy for the sad state of mankind.
Heightened narrative has helped reinvent the genre and it will be fascinating to see what Animal Planet’s filmmakers do with a brief to turn the network into a place to see animals as characters, not merely creatures, and present the wilderness not as a pristine parallel universe but a place also occupied by humans.