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The Real Mousewives of ‘Planet Earth’

The BBC nature series has more in common with pulpy reality shows than you’d think

(BBC/Ringer illustration)
(BBC/Ringer illustration)

Collect hundreds of hours of footage — the more raw material you have to work with, the better. Spend hundreds of hours more in the editing room, massaging the footage into a narrative and covering your tracks; the general public doesn’t like to think about how the real magic happens here, and you’d like to keep it that way. Finally, craft a through line and make sure everything the viewer sees fits it. A dramatic voice-over helps. These are the ingredients for an average episode of reality television. They’re also the building blocks of an exceptional nature documentary. Planet Earth II — nature doc and stoner’s delight — is the best reality show of the year.

The craftsmanship on display in the BBC’s long-awaited sequel to its 2006 series is undeniable. Armed with souped-up technology (drones!), the six-part miniseries revels in our planet’s awesome beauty. Some of that beauty requires a minimum of embellishment, like a rare snow leopard caught on a motion-sensing camera in the Himalayas or a motion-lapse shot of a volcanic island expanding with incredible speed. But the marvelous paradox of Planet Earth is that it uses some rather inorganic methods to facilitate our appreciation for Earth’s organic splendor. An eye trained by enough hours of HGTV will spot some familiar techniques, expertly applied; making the lion-, jaguar-, and leopard-obsessed Planet Earth II is literally herding cats. This is some storytelling wizardry that would do Bunim/Murray proud. Let’s rifle through the pages Planet Earth II takes from Andy Cohen’s playbook.

The MC Is Key

The most prominent collaborator in this effort is naturalist, narrator, and young-at-heart nonagenarian David Attenborough. Unlike the first Planet Earth, the follow-up hasn’t been redubbed for American audiences, and, with all due respect to Sigourney Weaver, that’s for the best. The inherent classiness of an actual knight belies just how effective — and manipulative — his work here actually is.

The manipulation starts with a truism: Animals are not people. To make us care about them, Attenborough deploys all his tools to make them more like something we do care about — ourselves. A soothing tone, a wry sense of humor, and nearly a century of experience take the place of Tim Gunn’s paternal wisdom or RuPaul’s wit in reassuring us that what we’re seeing is more or less the truth. Nothing that voice has to say could possibly be fudged.

A Great Soundtrack Helps

Instead of cheap, canned cues that tell us a table is about to be flipped, Planet Earth II has all the high dudgeon of the guy who brought us BWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON. Composer Hans Zimmer is slightly more behind-the-scenes than Attenborough, but the alternating grandiosity and levity his score infuses is just as essential to the final product, signaling our intended response more effectively than any preprogrammed sound effect could.

Always Be Shooting

Planet Earth’s press materials gush about the sheer volume of tape in the proud-of-their-own-exhaustion tone of a student after their first all-nighter: three years, 40 countries, and 117 filming trips for six hours of our time. But the secret sauce of any great true-life odyssey is maximizing the pool of data from which a more coherent story can be drawn. You never know when the magic will happen or what seemingly mundane moment will make for the perfect interstitial later on. With Planet Earth, keeping the camera rolling at all times is easier said than done. Schlepping hi-def equipment to near-Antarctica is slightly trickier than installing CCTVs in a Valley McMansion.

Give It Stakes

Planet Earth II assembles a series of instinctual animal behaviors into a complexly motivated, nuanced story of human-ish struggle. With a jaunty, whimsical piece of musical accompaniment, a bird’s courtship dance becomes a full-blown romantic comedy, with a charmingly try-hard hero and withholding heroine. With a warm-yet-solemn voice-over laid on top, a spider monkey teaching his offspring how to swing between the trees becomes a heartwarming family saga on par with This Is Us. (Planet Earth’s ability to give us filial bonds that aren’t cautionary tales puts it closer to the scripted than the unscripted in at least one respect.) In a crucial distinction from your typical Bravo fare, Planet Earth II doesn’t need any outside help in imbuing its subject with life-or-death stakes; the extended version of that iguana-versus-snakes bit is even more intense because before one lizard makes it out of an ambush, we see several others get literally eaten. In convincing us that contestants’ fates rest on a flawless sous vide, Top Chef producers have their work cut out for them. Planet Earth II has facts on its side.

Lay Down the Law

Reality TV has a set of unspoken rules — the same ones that forever enclose “reality” in implicit air quotes. Those rules give reality and documentary alike a comforting order. We watch for the closure and morality our day-to-day will never have: The villain hogging screen time will never get sent home before the final stretch, no matter how many times she demands “cheese pasta.” But she won’t win the final prize either, because this parallel universe is just, disposing its villains in predictably timed strokes of karma.

Planet Earth II has its own ironclad laws. The more anthropomorphized an animal is, for example, the less likely it is we’ll ever see them perish. Planet Earth II follows plenty of big predators; the show knows a lion pride on the prowl is sexier than a translucent frog. But a pattern quickly emerges. Whether it’s those lions, or a wolf pack, or a lone jungle cat, we never, ever see a successful hunt. Put simply, their prey is just too cute — we empathize with deer and bison enough that Planet Earth II will never let them die in front of us, even though the show is constantly reminding its audience that death is omnipresent in the natural world. Its makers know we’ll be happier to see the underdog emerge unscathed than to watch the odds-on favorite lay into its lunch. Insects, reptiles, and small rodents are fair game, though. Their demise isn’t scary enough to remind us of our own.

Own Your Message

It’s the stability of such dependable bylaws that buys Planet Earth II the leeway to work in its sobering, big-picture message, whose inevitable recurrence is a rule in its own right. America’s Next Top Model always works its way around to generic empowerment; The Bachelor is single-minded in its focus on true love. Planet Earth’s noble (and more sincerely held) cause is environmentalism. Every episode includes a solemn reminder of the havoc humanity wreaks on the natural world: Deforestation robs primates of a habitat, and beachfront hotels draw confused turtle hatchlings away from the ocean with their neon signage. The reminders are a downer, but they also contribute to the tonal consistency that makes nonfiction so reassuring. Reality is a mess. “Reality” has a unifying theme.

Lead Us On

Planet Earth II’s greatest trick — its most convincing, Mark Burnett–worthy marionette show — is its strategic withholding of information. The tactic is a high-risk endeavor, making the project’s narrative seams especially visible. It’s also high reward, because the segments it produces are Planet Earth’s peak thrills. On Planet Earth II, two especially effective instances of strategic deception showcase the dividends of a smoothly planned bait-and-switch. In “Mountains,” a group of ibex nimbly descends a heart-stoppingly sheer cliffside in Saudi Arabia. In “Jungles,” a lizard works his way ever higher up a tree. Both animals find themselves in tough spots. A fox pursues a vulnerable young kid from a watering hole to an outcropping with a 10-meter drop; a competitor chases the lizard to the edge of his territory, a branch several stories aboveground. It looks like certain doom — until the ibex jumps all 10 meters with ease and the lizard unfurls its parachute-like webbing to almost literally fly to its next perch.

Each moment is a thrilling culmination of Planet Earth II’s reality influences. Zimmer’s score gives a healthy assist to developments that were already exciting in their own right, though there’s a ceiling on that excitement because we knew our protagonists were never in any real danger. And Attenborough could have told us about the webbing or jumping superpower earlier, but didn’t. That would’ve ruined the surprise.

Is this dishonest? Technically. Did we come here for honesty? Not really. We watch Planet Earth for the spectacle, and spectacle is what Planet Earth provides, in remarkably well-executed fashion. It learned from the best.