Animals, not to put too fine a point on it, give me the willies. I don’t mean only snarling tigers, grotesque boars, and slithery snakes: I mean hamsters (smug, stubby-tailed rats waiting for an unguarded moment to bite off the tips of my fingers), cats (never known one that didn’t purr and purr, then sink its claws into one of my thighs), and dogs (I’ll cross to the other side of the street to avoid one of those idiotically-loyal-to-their-masters beasts).
You can understand, therefore, why I also think nature documentaries are the bees’ knees. I love ’em: all the danger and excitement of animals, safely caged inside the television set, where they can’t bite or relieve themselves on my carpet.
Perfect case in point: featured on this week’s edition of the globe-hopping nature series Hidden Worlds, Poison Dart Frogs. First of all, who knew there were such things as poison dart frogs, let alone that they’re so ridiculously ugly as to be unbelievably cute? Leaping and croaking on islands off the coast of Panama, these small creatures ”not much bigger than a dime,” as the narrator tells us, are ”very pretty and very deadly.” This is, by the way, a classic sort of nature-TV tactic: In a flat, nonjudgmental tone, combine one attractive adjective (”pretty”) with one frightening adjective (”deadly”) to achieve maximum viewer suspense.
Your average poison dart frog — ”so named because Indians in Colombia used to use them as a source of poison for their blow darts” — is, in the most literal way, superficially dangerous. ”Its skin is laced with poison,” we are informed. ”A taste does the trick.” (This is also what I imagine happens when one kisses Mickey Rourke.) The Hidden Worlds cameras zoom in for adroit close-ups of these telegenic frogs, which have the great advantage of being brightly, beautifully colored — some glowing yellow, others crimson, and many bright green with black racing stripes.
Another standard characteristic of a good nature documentary is that its script is always alert to the ways the behaviors of the animals echo that of humans — whenever possible, we are meant to see ourselves in these creations, no matter how slimy they (or we) may be. The narrator here, for example, observes that the frogs are ”gentle with their young but can also poison their predators,” and who among us doesn’t know a few parents like that?
Quite aside from their manifold values as entertainment, however, it’s useful to look at nature documentaries as a video release valve for the culture. They remain one of the few places on television where violence and death can be portrayed plainly, without timid editing and moralizing. Thus cable’s high-minded Discovery Channel can, as it did recently, run a weeklong series of documentaries under the rubric ”Predators and Prey” and show, amid all the facts and figures, big animals killing and eating little animals with impunity.
One variation on nature documentaries, To Love or Kill: Man vs. Animal, may make you feel guilty for deriving entertainment from watching such things. Part of HBO’s America Undercover investigative series, this segment is about the ways people torment animals, most often in the name of sport, whether it’s bullfighting or shooting pigeons or, in a particularly grisly segment, felling a ram with a crossbow as weekend hunters in East Texas recently did. But writer-producer-director-narrator Antony Thomas doesn’t just condemn the meanness of such disruptions of nature; no, the sniffy Englishman goes on to sneer at this Texas-style ”killing [amid] canned beer and country music.” Rather than cheer Thomas for his insight, my first reaction was, ”Oh, up yours, you sanctimonious Brit.” I’d never want to get near a ram, but I wouldn’t want to pet any of the nasty animal-righters behind To Love or Kill, either.
Poison Dart Frogs: B+
To Love or Kill: C+