This past Saturday, I sat down and watched hours of adorable animal videos: kittens stalking each other in backyards, fluffy puppies romping and roughhousing, a baby sheep and a baby goat making the hesitant acquaintance of a cat, a miniature pig and a standard-sized rabbit rooting around in the trash for vegetables and then cuddling up for a nap. I oohed, I awed, I heard myself say things, all alone in a room, like “no, but that is really cute.” And I was also overwhelmingly, desperately bored.
I was watching Animal Planet, which on Saturdays does its very best impersonation of YouTube and broadcasts as many cute animals doing as many cute things as it possibly can. It’s a TV experience that is as close to being mercilessly tickled as I have ever experienced: You cannot stop making sounds of joy even though you are miserable and wish it would stop.
Thanks to the Internet, we watch more videos of animals being adorable than we ever have before. (Here’s an outrageously sweet polar bear I just watched three times this morning.) Most of the time Animal Planet accedes to the Internet’s supremacy in this particular format, airing instead a wide variety of human-focused reality TV shows like Tanked, which “follows the antics of two brothers-in-law as they run the largest aquarium manufacturing company in the nation.” But the network also has a handful of shows that specialize in cuteness and tell you so in the title. Series like Too Cute, America’s Cutest Pet, Dogs 101, and Cats 101 feature humans narrating animal videos—some filmed for Animal Planet, some from the Internet—with commentary so inane it left me longing for the silence of most online animal videos, in which the only wide-eyed narrator making silly remarks is me.
Too Cute comes in half-hour and hour installments and is narrated by a man who sounds like an extra in In a World…. In one exemplary episode, subtitled “Unusual Friendships,” the narrator jumps between “stories” about the sheep and the goat; the pig and the bunny; and a diaper-wearing baboon named Josh Earl and a golden retriever named Poocho. In each, he anthropomorphizes their sweet animal antics into dull and digestible Hallmark lessons. Josh Earl and Poocho teach us about the importance of having different kinds of friends; the pig and bunny about not getting annoyed at the pal who wants too much of your attention; and the sheep and the goat demonstrate that “in friendship, everyone has a role to play. Sometimes you lead and sometimes you need to follow. But in the end, all that matters is you stick together.” Of course, the real lesson is simply try to watch a baby goat and a baby lamb meet a cat for the first time and not squee.
The frustration of Too Cute is not the animals, who always deliver—if you can watch eight great Pyrenees puppies lope around without your heart doing pitter-pats, you like dogs even less than I do, and I don’t like dogs very much—but the humans, who keep trying to project onto animals our banal human concerns. Animal Planet over-anthropomorphizes: The ideal animal video is one in which an animals is clearly up to something but it’s hard to say why they care so much about getting into that pickle jar, up those stairs, into that hole. They have an agenda, like humans, but they are still mysterious, because they are animals. I don’t know why a cat would get inside a teacup, but I really hope it is not because she is trying to clean it out for her mom, which is exactly the sort of spin Too Cute would put on such behavior.
Further proving it is humans that ruin all the lovely animal videos Animal Planet has assembled is the relatively new series Meet the Sloths, a reality show about a sloth refuge in Costa Rica. The show is an attempt to do for sloths what the long-running Meerkat Manor did for meerkats. Unfortunately, sloths are extremely slothful. The show promises to be a “surprising soap opera of dramatic rescues,” but that is completely impossible with creatures that sleep 80 percent of the time and move, at their fastest, in slow motion. In fact, a sort of moss—algae, really—grows on them in the wild! Meet the Sloths is basically a show about furry rocks with a heartbeat. A five-minute stretch dedicated to a young sloth named Tigger (because he is far more active than most sloths) still had to be shown in fast-forward just so we could see him moving back and forth across his cage a few times.
In one “high drama” sequence, workers at the refuge are concerned about a new mama sloth who has attracted male attention. The humans are so keen to protect her that they get up on a ladder and carry one of the males away. But while “this threat has been dealt with,” another male approaches the mother. As the humans look on, aghast, the female sloth delivers—in the words of the show—“a vicious left hook.” To the untrained eye, it looks exactly like the lady sloth very slowly puts her arm on the male’s back and squeezes gently. The humans are beyond relieved that “she took care of it,” which, of course, she did, because while they were stuck in some concocted drama about shady male sloths catcalling a brand-new mom, the sloths themselves were involved in standard mating rituals.
America’s Cutest Pet, Animal Planet’s version of VH1’s Best Week Ever, is a little better, because the talking heads—from veterinarians to BuzzFeed employees— watch Internet animal videos more or less just like us. Some of the guests try to tell jokes, but eventually everyone is reduced to making extremely obvious observations about the video in question: “Another cat gets into a bowl!” This at least has the virtue of more accurately reflecting how we watch short animal videos, our brains short-circuited by cuteness, our mouths reduced to emitting excitable syllables. It also has the virtue of not laying onto cats dull human hang-ups. Better to say “She’s curious!” about the Internet-famous Maru sticking her head through a paper car than inferring, as Too Cute might, that Maru is upset she can never have a driver’s license.
After watching Animal Planet for hours, I finally figured out the best way to take it in: on mute. Oh look, there’s a kangaroo and a deer, hanging out with a very hyper lemur. The lemur is racing around! And the deer is just, like, why are you racing around? And then the lemur sees the kangaroo being so chill and calms down and they all, awww, oh my God, they all cuddle.
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