As my regular shows swam off to the depths of their summer hiatuses, I found myself a month or so ago trolling aimlessly through channels, fishing for something new to me and somewhat interesting. I would not have imagined that I’d end up with a fishing show, only that fishing could be used in a rather poor metaphor to suggest my lack of ability to find anything (I am, it must be said, the world’s worst fisher. If BP can’t plug their spout, they should release my pheromones into the Gulf, to chase the fish far, far away). But I’ve become a fan of River Monsters on Animal Planet.
Each episode follows host, biologist, and “extreme angler” Jeremy Wade’s quest to catch a river killer surrounded by mystery, or even the semblance of myth. He has gone after piranhas, giant sting rays, river sharks, goliath catfish, gators and crocs, and so forth. For the animal-lovers, have no fear – he catches just to say he has, and to show the camera, not to kill. Though the British Wade is as much a master of understatement and of adventure as is Man vs. Wild’s Bear Grylls, rest assured that no episode sees him sitting down to eat his slain adversary.
As with Man vs. Wild, the show works as a wonderful alibi for travel journalism. His hunt for the massive sting ray takes him into Laotian waters, and sees him chatting with local fishermen, for instance, and other episodes take him to other locales around the world (where he handles himself well — Wade is not the annoying half of an all-models Amazing Race team). A modicum of education is offered at the same time, as we’re given facts about the breeding, eating, and other patterns of various fish. There’s a lot of comedy too, some from the grotesquerie of what he catches, some from the situations in which he finds himself. There’s a lot of mystique and intrigue, as many fish require sleuthing to find, and involve fish tales that keep one in disbelief as to the existence of the creature well into the second half-hour. And it’s just plain amazing to see some of these strange creatures, especially the huge ones. One of them belches and chortles like Jabba the Hutt when pulled out of water, the giant ray gives birth to babies that are well over a foot wide and two feet long, and the bottom feeders always seem to have eyes in the wrong place, Picasso style.
If you watch, you won’t be alone. It’s Animal Planet’s highest rated show, with most episodes garnering between one and two million viewers. And yet while watching it, I find myself once more wondering why animals and American television haven’t been even better friends. Blue Planet and Planet Earth tore up the British ratings, in prime time no less, and it’s perhaps no surprise that River Monsters is a British production. Anyone who sees these shows tends to love them. And animal shows are all the better in a High Def era, especially when they always entail lovely vistas of jungle, wetland, or other impressive landscapes too. So why hasn’t a bold network exec taken a chance on producing something like this for network primetime yet? They must be cheap to make, much less than Jim Belushi’s salary, yet significantly better value. For a television system so enamored with ripping off British ideas, it’s a pity that American network television hasn’t yet produced something like this on its own.
While they wait, though, I’d recommend the show.