The new, sexier Animal Planet.

What you're watching.
July 17 2006 12:03 PM

Meerkats Inc.

The new, sexier Animal Planet.

Meerkat Manor. Click image to expand.
Meerkats

I was alerted to the charms of Animal Planet—a channel valued as a carnival for zoophiles and, thus, a refuge for misanthropes—by a friend who's developed a peculiar relationship with it. It's not especially striking that she spends hours sitting raptly in front of its tales of little baby animals and big awesome beasts; even the least impressive of these shows can lull you into a happy trance. And I quite understand the appeal of the channel's marquee personality, Jeff Corwin, widely considered to be hot; the host of The Jeff Corwin Experience and Corwin's Quest regularly pulls off the trick of being rugged and cuddly at once, and his jaw looks as if it were die-cast.

Nor do I find it odd that, whenever my friend sees an ASPCA car in New York City, she checks to see if its driver is one of the stars of Animal Precinct, a procedural documenting the dirty job that the ASPCA's Humane Law Enforcement Department has to do. I wasn't around in 1942, but the strength of her emotions seems to be on par with what bobby-soxers felt for Sinatra at the Paramount.

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No, the thing is that, having trained her cats to watch Animal Planet, my friend leaves it on for them when she exits her apartment. Is this the new thing? Television so addicting that you watch it even when you're not around? Anna says that her cats, like a fair number of humans, especially enjoy Meerkat Manor (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET). This new show is less a nature documentary than a reality series about burrowing critters—kind of like mongooses, but cuter and more svelte—in southern Africa. You might call it Mutual of Omaha's Laguna Beach, but the power plays and elaborate social rituals of these fellas would blow the mind of the most battle-tested mean girl. The producers, showing an admirable crassitude, play it to the hilt, billing the show as "a soap opera with a difference." A typical tease for an upcoming episode: "Flower's pup Mitch gets his comeuppance when he steals food from the other pups."

Thus, Animal Planet enters a new phase. Having coasted along for years on the awe-inspiring (Crocodile Hunter) and the awww-inspiring (The Planet's Funniest Animals), the channel is sexing it up. Last month, it aired Dancing Pet Stars, which proved to be more entertaining than any of those dancing shows starring humans. Its latest show is an extremely slick number called Caught in the Moment (Mondays at 9 p.m. ET). The hosts are supposed to be childhood sweethearts, a young wildlife filmmaker named Tristan Bayer and a young naturalist named Vanessa Garnick. They're jaunting around the globe to make music videos featuring a lot of turtles and whales or something. Tristan always has a three-day beard and perfect bed-head, and he never lets anything stand between him and a good shot. "Sand will ruin a camera," he says on a Costa Rican beach, "so I have to use my shirt to protect it." (Vanessa wasn't required to protect anything with her shirt, certainly not her cleavage.)We seem to be voyeurs spying on a glamorous honeymoon that happens to involve endangered species.

But will our furry friends dig it? What does the channel's new direction mean for them? Experimentally, I roused Wally, my 2-year-old tabby, from a nap, hauled him over to the couch, and tried to get him into Caught in the Moment. He cleaned himself for a little while and then went to nap somewhere else.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.