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TV Weekend: Last March of the Penguins?

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Why do people love penguins so much? This weekend, Discovery’s Frozen Planet begins counting the ways.

The tubby little birds are hardly the only creatures in the documentary series about life in the planet’s polar regions (beginning Sunday night), nor the most visually spectacular. Yet even though we haven’t lacked for penguin-centric entertainments in recent years, they remain one of the most compelling. Yes, anthropomorphism has to be a big part of it: bipedalism, tuxedos and all that. But there is also the context of their environment, which this British co-production lays out magnificently.

Penguins stoically inhabit one of the least hospitable regions on Earth—a place that looks, really, like an alien planet—aided by no special physical might but simply persistence, adaptation and the ability to huddle in groups. They strive, they endure, they persevere. Perhaps better than any animal, they represent the absurd dignity of life, of abiding persistently in a world that is trying to kill you and will eventually succeed.

This is one of the keys to their appeal, and one of the reasons that Frozen Planet, the latest series from the makers of Planet Earth and Life, succeeds in isolating one of the most successful elements from those past series: life in the planet’s frozen regions. I mean, let’s be blunt: penguins? Polar bear babies? Seals? There are almost no non-adorable animals in the Arctic and Antarctic. The creatures’ natural adaptations, from protective layers of pudge to fluffy white fur, are almost ridiculously telegenic. Even when elephant seals bloodily square off for territory in one episode, it’s with almost cartoon-like ripplings of squishy blubber.

Part of what distinguishes this series is its running, topical subtext: the awareness that, because of climate change, those regions are becoming less and less frozen, with potential implications planet-wide. The narration—here, Alec Baldwin subbing for Richard Attenborough in the British version—makes this plain at the end of the first episode: “Even creatures that are specifically adapted to these frozen worlds have a hard time. It’s getting harder. A warning climate melts more ice earlier every year. Sea levels are rising, The ends of the Earth are changing, and what happens at the poles affects all of us, no matter where we live on this planet.”

It is a little jarring for a regular 30 Rock viewer to hear these words coming from Baldwin; he’s an outspoken liberal in real life, but on his NBC show you’d expect him to rebut Liz Lemon about the myth of climate change with a rant involving Six Sigma and Ronald Reagan. The early episodes of the series don’t take a political stance on climate, nor really address the causes—man-made or otherwise—or any potential solutions to the situation. (A late episode, which I have not yet seen but has aired in the UK, addresses climate change more directly.) Still, the smallest reference in the narration combines with the stunning visuals of the rest of the program to send a striking message: these panoramas have been on our planet in this state for millennia, they are magnificent—and they may soon be gone, or drastically changed.

As for those dramatic visuals, if you’ve seen the series’ predecessors on Discovery, you know what to expect, but it makes the big-screen eye candy no less wow-ing: Vivid alien gardens of undersea life beneath the ice. A gentoo penguin leading a sea lion on a fierce flipper chase. Narwhals navigating serenely through deep-azure channels in the ice. (And the baby animals! OMG the babies! This may not speak to Frozen Planet’s scientific heft, but an embarrassing portion of my viewing notes is devoted to exclamations like, “OH GOD NO BABY SEAL RUN!!!”)

It’s all breathtaking in much the way that you’d suspect. What makes it powerful are the reminders that a warming planet may be turning all this to history, as sheets of glacial ice fall before our eyes into the ocean. Frozen Planet draws you in with the eternal appeal of polar life, which is the miracle of endurance. But what may stick with you is the realization that there are global changes that even these survivors, from penguins on up, may not be able to endure.