'Nature: Spy In the Wild': TV Review

Steve Downer/John Downer Productions
You can't look away.
2/1/2017

A five-part 'Nature' documentary puts animatronic spy animals with cameras into the wild and comes up with an eye-opening slice of television.

Were I to tell you that PBS' Nature series had a pretty incredible five-part miniseries worth recording, you might not even think about reading it if, say, you were more interested in reviews of and news about Westworld or Legion (as I normally am).

But what if I told you that this particular review right here is really about animal spies — animatronic animal spies, to be precise — and will touch on thievery, kidnapping, meme culture and the uncomfortable weirdness of tortoise rape? What then? With the caveat, of course, that whatever uncomfortable animal behavior there is — and if you've watched even one animal documentary, you know it's a cruel world out there — this particular Nature series leavens that with, to be honest, an overabundance of cuteness?

Of course you'd read that!

Starting Wednesday and running weekly for a month (with limited online viewing of full episodes as well), PBS' Nature presents its most ambitious and probably audacious effort in the long and glorious history of the famed series.

Spy in the Wild uses more than 30 animatronic spies to get up close and personal in the animal kingdom and does a very convincing job of it in the process. Not only does it pass the critical "Hey, that looks pretty lifelike" test as you stare at one of these things with cameras for eyes, but for the most part the animals being mimicked feel the same.

Up to and including some rather uncomfortable footage of an animatronic tortoise being taken advantage of in such a way that I had to look up previous nature/animal reviews of mine through the years that touched on animal cruelty and ask myself, "Is there such a thing as tortoise rape and why did I volunteer to write about these wild animals again?"

But the effort is worth it. (Well, let's not kid ourselves — if you're primarily a scripted person like I am, there's a combination of comedies and dramas totaling about 500 shows out there to choose from and diving into them you won't be brokenhearted over rejected male penguins who show up late to build a nest, have their pebbles stolen by macho penguin jerks, lose their pregnant significant others because of it and then get the crap beaten out of them for good measure. So, if you can't handle that, go watch The Young Pope instead.)

Perhaps that's the long-winded way of saying that Spy In the Wild is both completely amazing and disturbing — but always fascinating.

For starters, you get Spy Wild Dog Pup! He looks like an animatronic dog you'd find in a store. He's cute. But then you find out the other pups, if they don't buy the fact that he's one of them, "could rip him to pieces." Yeah, because it's nature. And it's a Nature documentary. That's how it works out in the real world.

Almost immediately you see why Spy In the Wild works and is an impressive leap for nature studies. All of these animatronic spies get access that even the best and longest-range cameras would not. Producer and director John Downer (Earthflight, Penguins: Spy in the Huddle) and his crew have done something impressive here, with 34 spy creatures, intricate ultra-high-definition eye cameras that shot roughly 8,000 hours of footage in 21 countries over three years. That's a big commitment and the goal was to find, among that footage, never-before-scene animal behavior that might change how we perceive different species. And Spy in the Wild did get that footage, along with a better understanding of what it's like to be up close to animals that don't let you get up close.

Among the "spy creatures," there are: Spy Croc Hatchling (and yeah, there's some gross stuff there because crocodiles are evil dinosaurs that never went extinct); Spy Tortoise (heavy sigh — and really, you should just look away during this part because tortoise sex is pretty disgusting and even more so when it's not consensual); Spy Egret (way cooler than you'd think); Spy Langur monkey (awesome); Spy Bushbaby (are you kidding?!); Spy Meerkat; Spy Adelie penguin; Spy Cobra; Spy Macaw; Spy Baby Hippo (yes, really); Spy Prairie Dog; and many more. Every time Nature introduces one, it's hard to not shout out, "Spy Chimp!" excitedly.

You'll find yourself agreeing that it's pretty smart to pair the Spy Egret and the Spy Tortoise on joint missions and then, as the various scenes pile up, you come to the realization that this collection of animatronic spies are really kind of a superhero movie played out on the savannah and the whole documentary becomes more interesting. And make no mistake, the narration refers to them as a collection of spies in the field, and when you hear that Spy Bush Baby is getting some much-needed back-up as "Spy Tortoise is also being deployed," you'll get excited at the pulse-pounding mission. It's like Ocean's 14 or something.

In all seriousness, some very revealing things are shown here, when it comes to behavior. And if you don't think it's hard to watch an animal documentary and worry about spoilers, well, it is.

As Spy In the Wild explains, some of the footage is "capturing emotions that have never really been observed." Without spoiling two big events that take place in the first hour, the narrator says one scene depicts "an unprecedented assembly never witnessed before" and somberly notes in another segment that "a quiet and contemplative mood descends on the colony" (hint: something very bad happens, and yes, you see it).

On the other hand, cuteness abounds. If you didn't know already, Wild Dogs (and yep, that's what they are called) are pretty adorable. An animatronic Wild Dog Pup makes sure you find that out. Langur monkeys are super fun to watch, especially the teenage babysitters (and yes, I know that sounds really pervy).

While there is some tricky editing at work in Spy in the Wild, much of what you see from the animatronic animals is very impressive and rare. And while it's also true that pretty much every single animal featured in the documentary seem at least a little dubious about the fake intruders, most fit right in after a while (and perhaps the highlight of the first hour is how the very smart chimps call bullshit on Spy Tortoise — those chimps are our cousins, remember — but instead of chucking Spy Tortoise into a tree, one of the chimps turns him into a toy pet and that, in turn, leads to other intriguing behavior).

Basically, you're not going to get your mind blown with Santa Clarita Diet the same way you are with Spy in the Wild, and that's a pretty good reason to watch this Nature special if you can.

Also, Spy Sloth!

Produced and directed by: John Downer
Premieres: Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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