The star of Primetime: The Outsiders has an unhealthy need for attention.

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Aug. 12 2009 7:20 PM

Give Him Footage or Give Him Death

TV lion-tamer Dave Salmoni plays the showman to the point of idiocy.

Dave Salmoni. Click image to expand.
Dave Salmoni with Ron, a Bengal tiger

Being the network news division with the most robust nighttime presence—the home of Nightline and 20/20, among other classic infotainments—ABC News is, by definition, the outfit with the most sensational nonsense on offer. Just last night, Nightline ventured into the world of child beauty pageants, promising to reveal their seamy underbelly, as if the seaminess of such competitions were not evident in every speck of foundation powder. This Friday's 20/20 will cue up some tornado video. It will have to be pretty awesome to equal last week's piece on "sleep eaters," a segment tastefully illustrated with night-vision footage of an unconscious woman rummaging through the fridge.

If summer's here, then the time is right for ABC to air Primetime: The Outsiders, a subset of the magazine show concentrating on weird sex, delusional behavior, and wild animals—preferably, at least two of these at once. Last year, a correspondent, interviewing a woman who was raising a capuchin monkey as her daughter, gave the monkey a lollipop, which is definitely one way to butter up a source. Last night, the Outsiders team was on to big game, devoting an episode to two guys who work with lions, primarily Dave Salmoni, a TV zoologist with a new show on Animal Planet and an unhealthy need for attention.

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Here was Salmoni at a wildlife preserve in Namibia. Some new lions—recently kicked out of a national park for being too bloodthirsty around the edges—were in town and threatening to ruin the neighborhood. Salmoni was taking it upon himself to get close to the cats so that they, learning not to fear self-righteous hippy-dippy types, would not devour any eco-tourists on photo safari. In practice, this involved Salmoni carrying a big stick and talking loudly whenever the beasts charged: "That's enough! Forget it! Get out of here!" In time, the lions came to trust him, and they would sit together in silence. It was, Salmoni blathered, "a relationship so pure that you'll never get it anywhere else."

I'm not sure that I want this guy as an ambassador of my species. He claims that his sojourn in the bush—"long stretches of solitude punctuated by terror," per the narration—is part of an effort to reclaim some element of his core identity. The producers juxtapose an old clip of Salmoni appearing on The Tonight Show with audio of his existential fretting: "I lost a part of myself. ..." The implication is that Salmoni, having been corrupted by civilization in general and showbiz in particular, was now getting back to basics. It was just him and nature and the pseudo-documentary crew filming him and the pseudo-news crew filming them. The peculiarity of this situation did not escape ABC's correspondent, who wondered what Salmoni had to say to those who argued he's more a showman than a zoologist. "Tell everybody that I'm an idiot and a showman or whatever," he replied. "I don't need your approval."

On his show itself, Into the Pride (Animal Planet, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET), Salmoni plays the showman to the point of idiocy. Despite the fact that there's not a lot going on here—the Primetime segment covered more ground than the first two episodes of the series—there's too much going on here. As implied by the Jon Krakauer styling of the title, the series has some Thoreauvian pretensions to serving as an adventure of self-discovery. Also, Salmoni imagines himself as "some kind of bush version of Dr. Doolittle" in a way that invites comparison to Timothy Treadwell, the doomed idealist of  Grizzly Man. Also, he's got the instincts of a real predator. Drilling his crew on how to rescue him from a rampaging animal, he orders the medic to make sure the camera guys don't lift a finger: "I don't want to wake up in the hospital and find out we didn't get the shot." Give him footage or give him death.

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