Sharks have legs. In its 20th year, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week had its biggest debut ever, drawing 3.9 million viewers to Ocean of Fear: The Worst Shark Attack Ever on Sunday night. There’s the publicity pull of the big 20th anniversary, of course, but I suspect Shark Week has benefited from the popularity of a genre it spawned: the Nature Is Going to Kill You Show, represented by the likes of Deadliest Catch, the recently tarnished Man Vs. Wild, Ice Road Truckers and Survivorman, whose host Les Stroud is also hosting Shark Week.
I watched Stroud’s special, Shark Feeding Frenzy, on Discovery last night. The title is not unlike a fetish-video title–Shoe Licking Fiesta, or whatnot–and the show pretty much followed the rules of Nature Is Going to Kill You porn down the line. The pseudo-scientific premise: let’s see what we can get sharks to attack, why and how hard they’ll do it. Among the delicacies sharks are partial to: turkey, license plates and Stroud’s cameraman, who escaped an arm amputation only by wearing a suit of chainmail. This, in fact, was my number-one educational takeaway from Shark Feeding Frenzy: “It can never be completely safe to hand-feed sharks, even while wearing a chainmail suit.” Noted.
I can’t decide if it’s ironic, or perfectly appropriate, that the Nature Is Going to Kill You Genre is getting so hot just as the pop culture focus on the environment is also peaking, from An Inconvenient Truth to The Simpsons Movie to Discovery’s own huge Planet Earth documentary (Discovery Networks, by the way, will launch Planet Green, a channel about all things eco, next year). I mean on the one hand, it makes thematic sense: respecting the awesomeness of nature, communing with the Earth, recognizing that we are in danger of destroying ourselves by destroying our environment and so on. On the other hand: I’m supposed to want to save the oceans now? When the ocean would bite my friggin arm off if it got half a chance?
Having two young sons, however, I have many long years of Nature Will Kill You TV ahead of me. Tuned In Jr. and Tuned In Jr. Jr. have become fans of Bindi: The Jungle Girl, on Discovery Kids, starring Bindi Irwin, whose dad, Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, actually was killed by nature, in the form of a stingray. Disturbingly, it involves Bindi narrating footage of her late father getting dangerously close to wildlife, pretty much precisely the way he died.
Mind you I don’t judge, I’m not questioning the show’s ethics, and if Bindi wants to carry on her father’s work, more power to her. That doesn’t make it any less creepy to see footage of him with a shark and hearing her narrate, “Don’t lean in too close!”–all the while trying not to let on to the kids how or why I’m weirded out by it.
Not that the kids will probably be any less interested in the shows once they find out what happened to Irwin–any more than his adult fans were, judging by the numbers for Shark Week. You can’t blame us for curiosity, and you can’t blame nature for trying to kill us. We’re all doing what comes, well, naturally.