Pop Culture: The Green Invasion

From eco-friendly films to progressive podcasts, Plenty picks the best in summer entertainment

Rare Specimen


MOST PEOPLE have an affinity for the cute and fuzzy creatures of the planet (and maybe the scaly and slimy ones, too). But it wasn’t until the 1950s, when television suddenly became accessible to the masses, that the world’s more exotic fauna entered the American consciousness. The earliest—and most formative—animal shows of that era include The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The stars of these shows—famous oceanographer and pioneer in the art of underwater filming, Jacques Cousteau, and the grandfatherly zoologist, Merlin Perkins—were as much cultural phenomena as the sharks and leopards. Although both hosts were animal protection advocates, their shows, which were designed to entertain as well as educate viewers, left a legacy of dramatizing animals: In Wild Kingdom, the danger of crocs, snakes, and elephants was emphasized by long camera shots in which Perkins and other men were shown fighting the animals to submission with anxiety-inducing orchestral music playing in the background. Today, such overt (and sometimes violent) manhandling might incite people to call their local animal  protection organization, but at the time—pre-Endangered Species Act, with the World Wildlife Federation in its infancy—viewers were, for the most part, enthralled.

Still largely hosted by men and focused on entertainment, these creature-centric shows continue to spotlight the dangerous aspects of wild animals; they also pander to viewers’ short attentions spans by keeping education tidbits to a minimum. Granted, there have been a few positive developments—most of today’s animal shows have toned down the Jaws-like soundtracks and have made an effort to occasionally feature less “exciting” animals (such as birds and insects), but they are obviously inspired by their historical counterparts. Take Steve Irwin, host of the ultra-popular Crocodile Hunter. While the rambunctious, tow-headed Aussie obviously fosters a keen fondness for the large lizards that star on his show, his tactic of provoking crocs to bare their teeth for the viewers back home seems less than respectful. And then there’s the beefy yet hopelessly dorky Jeff Corwin of The Jeff Corwin Experience (who’ll stop at nothing to temporarily capture a cool snake or tree frog). Google his name and you’ll find a mile-long list of fan sites gushing about his chiseled physique. Why pay attention to those pesky carpenter ants when Jeffy is sporting a custom-made muscle shirt? While the Irwins and Corwins of the world definitely have their followers, their style of overpowering the animals, rather than simply observing them, harks back to an era that fails to resonate with a younger, more ecologically sensitive generation of viewers.

For viewers who love animals but find the current menu of nature shows lacking, there’s a new dish to sample: Pan on Vanessa Garnik and Tristan Bayer—the young, smart, and admittedly gorgeous stars of the new Animal Planet series Caught in the Moment (premieres on June 20, 9 p.m.). As hosts, they offer different but complementary skills. Bayer, son of famed wildlife cinematographer Wolfgang Bayer, brings a keen eye to capturing the beauty of the natural world, while Garnik, a trained naturalist, imparts astute observations about the complexity of animal protection. CITM is one of the only animal shows featuring both a male and female host, and together Garnik and Bayer offer a dynamic that is refreshingly balanced.

Each episode takes the duo to a new location—Costa Rica, Madagascar, and Cocos Island are just a few—in which they seek out rarely seen, usually endangered animals. Along the way, they often engage the locals to discuss how human activity either benefits or damages animal habitat. This is exactly the type of comprehensive approach we wouldn’t expect to get from a critter show, but this pair likes to push the envelope. They’re involved in every facet of the show’s production, from the music (each episode culminates in a three-minute music video combining show footage with the work of an emerging artist) to the fashion. “You don’t have to wear the safari shorts and vest to care about animals and to go into the jungle,” says Garnik, who’s particularly fond of peasant skirts. They’re also working with Animal Planet to set up a carbon-offsetting program to minimize the show’s environmental impact. “You really need to cover all your bases if you’re even going to attempt the c-word—conservation,” says Bayer.

Though CITM departs from the overly dramatized presentations of shows past, its primary focus continues to be the wildlife. And that’s a good thing, because many of these animals won’t be around forever. “We’re working with a lot of animals that are time sensitive and that people don’t really know about yet,” says Garnik. “Hopefully it reaches people.” We hope so, too. While watching a guy stick his head in a croc’s mouth is occasionally amusing, watching two hotties make the world a better place for animals is something we could really get into.

TV doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Here are five shows for the enthusiastic ecophile.

Backyard Habitat (Animal Planet) – Built on the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification program, Backyard Habitat teaches land owners how to turn their green spaces into havens for indigenous plants and animals. Whether you’ve got a balcony in Manhattan or a farm in Vermont, co-hosts David Mizejewski and Molly Pesce will teach you how to tend your yard to attract the wild things and to help them flourish.

Design Remix (HGTV) – Want to give your digs a makeover, but cringe at the thought of sending all of your less-than-stylish furniture to a landfill? Created for the crafty homeowner (or renter) on a super-tight budget, Design Remix will show you how to dramatically transform your domicile by rearranging and retreading items you already own.

Natural Heroes (PBS) – This series of independently produced films about the environment first premiered in 2004, garnering a Silver Telly Award. The second installment returned in April, and will continue to show throughout the summer. Each episode will feature a different story about a person making a difference in the fight to save the planet; past subjects have included a slow-foodist who delivers soup on his bike, as well as the debate over how to manage the last remaining wetland in Southern California.

Orgasmic Organic (LIME) – Amazingly enough, the Food Network doesn’t have a single show that addresses eco-friendly cooking; luckily, LIME (see box on this new eco-tastic network) is picking up the slack. Two organic chefs and an organic wine expert, all with cute European accents, will show you how to make mouthwatering organic fare.

Dirty Jobs (Discovery) – Most of us would probably rather not think about what happens to waste after we flush our toilets, but someone has to! Tag along with host Mike Rowe as he shadows the men and women who do all the work that’s both nasty and necessary to keeping our lives running smoothly. Past episodes have followed a sewer inspector, a garbage collector, a road kill cleaner, and a sludge recycler.

Launched in November 2005, LIME is designed for those who want to lead healthy, sustainable lives. Tapping into a technologically savvy generation of viewers, LIME is available on multiple platforms including TV, radio, cell phone, and of course, the Web (lime.com). On LIME’s Web site, loyal followers participate in a dynamic online community by watching and commenting on short, digestible videos on healthy living (hosted by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Dr. Weil) as well as posting responses to blog entries from LIME’s diverse contributors. LIME offers an array of fun series and documentaries, from the award-winning drama The Insider Guide to Happiness to Rodney Yee Energy Yoga to The Paper Colony, which tells the story of the different stakeholders trying to shape the future of Maine’s North Woods. Want LIME? Check with your cable provider to see if it’s offered. If not, much of the network’s programming is available via their Web site and podcasts.

While product placements of everything from sodas to cell phones are rampant in today’s TV shows, one group has been laboring behind the scenes to embed not products, but eco-messages, into mainstream media. The Environmental Media Association, a California-based nonprofit, works with Hollywood execs and producers to get earth-friendly messages into the minds of the public. They use lots of sneaky tactics like providing major network shows like Will & Grace and The West Wing with green props, such as recycling bins and hybrid cars, as well as eco-themed storylines. They also give out awards to shows that make use of earth-friendly production practices. (You may be surprised to learn that the 2005 winner of the EMA Green Seal Award for daytime TV was Days of Our Lives.) Shows that the EMA is currently working with include Las Vegas, My Name is Earl, and The Office. For more information, check out www.ema-online.org.

 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10  |  11  |  12 

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter