Like many Americans, I find myself in the awkward position of regarding animals as both adorable and delicious. On one hand, during my daily constitutional, I can't help but ambush every non-handbag-sized dog with a tummy rub and a "Who's a good boy? YOU are! YOU are!" On the other, cheeseburgers rule.
Hypocritical? Probably. That hasn't stopped me from lounging in front of Animal Planet while noshing on processed pig innards, even though the network has never entirely won me over. For much of its first 12 years, Animal Planet suffered from an overload of cute. Everybody loves watching kitten-wittens yawn lazily and scrunch up their twitchy noses, but footage of this ilk gets old really fast. Case in point: heard anybody talking about those Shiba Inu puppies in the last few weeks?
As part of my nature fix, I want scratch marks, mandibles and social Darwinism. I want a peevish koala showing Bindi Irwin who's boss. I want a separate Animal Planet: Serengeti channel featuring nothing other than footage of Mr. Underfed Lion making the acquaintance of Mr. Minding-His-Own-Business Zebra.
A new direction
Happily, last year Animal Planet decided to reorient around what one press report called "more visceral imagery and sounds." Out went the soft focus and monotonous narrators, in came the primal shrieks and amateur-shot clips of ostrich maulings. By all accounts, the channel's new direction has proven quite successful, though the increased interest might have something to do with the continued surge in high-def adoption. Animal Planet programming pops off the screen in HD, no matter what you're watching, and the net has introduced any number of dopily-named shows to meet viewer demand. In fact, let's play a game -- see if you can spot the fake Animal Planet show title in this list: "Living With the Wolfman," "Dark Days in Monkey City," "Marsupial Messiahs" or "Groomer Has It." (Answer at the bottom of the column.)
Anyway, I decided to give the revamped Animal Planet a look-see to determine whether the net's new focus on boisterous carnivores sates my varmint lust. For today's exercise, I settled on AP mainstays "It's Me or the Dog" and "Untamed and Uncut," choosing them based on their on-screen blurbs. The former promised "five emotionally distressed pugs"; the latter reeled me in with "two divers are attacked by an elephant seal." Tersely worded teases get me every time.
The title "It's Me or the Dog" is slightly misleading, as the show lacks a dramatic kennel ceremony in which an individual is asked to choose between human and pooch, potentially violating any number of obscenity laws in the process. The concept isn't anything too novel: camera-friendly expert invades a suburban dwelling and reforms its insolent inhabitants. Think "Supernanny," but with less manufactured whimsy.
More bark than bite
The show falls short for many of the same reasons that "Supernanny" does. The subject -- breaking a dog's bad habits -- isn't inherently thrilling, so "It's Me or the Dog" gussies it up with a VH-1-ish title sequence, ominous music and overplayed drama involving the pet's owner. The aforementioned expert, a cutesy shrew of a trainer whose facial expressions are less subtle than a fart in a spacesuit, yips brassily at everything -- dogs, owners, plush toys, etc. -- and succeeds in breaking the wayward hound before the hour is out. It gets old, fast.
"Untamed and Uncut" won't ever get old, however, so long as animals act unpredictably and humans are around to document the ensuing carnage. The compilation of You-Tubey clips seeks to elicit an audible "ooooof!" with its graphic depictions of animals acting like... well, animals. It's not difficult to watch, because in just about every instance the cornered/swarmed/de-pantsed party emerges from the encounter with life and limbs intact. But still, that clip of the rodeo chick taking a bull's horn to the jaw? Gaaa.
My only complaint is that "Untamed and Uncut" forestalls its dramatic payoffs. We see the poor jockey getting dragged by his horse. We see computer illustrations of it. We see witnesses and experts and friends-of-a-friend discussing it. Then we see the footage six more times in slo-mo, before a quick cut to commercial and four more replays. "Untamed" would be better served by cutting to the chase and adding an additional segment per show. And more rescues of mud-mired elephants, please.
(Answer to quiz? "Marsupial Messiahs" is the fake Animal Planet show title)