Dominic Monaghan, it’s fair to say, is a bit of a geek. Best known for playing the mischievous hobbit Merry in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and, of course, the rock-star drug addict Charlie Pace on Lost, the expressive and enthusiastic Monaghan gravitates towards compulsive characters in adventurous situations.
As suggested by Wild Things, the new travel/nature documentary series that he hosts on BBC America, Monaghan is himself something of a compulsive adventurer, one with a particular interest in wild animals. And by “interest,” I mean “giddy obsession.”
Monaghan displays a direct, intrusive, undeniably engaging interaction with the natural world and the creatures that live within it, recalling the spirited commitment of the Crocodile Hunter. As similar as their affects may be, however, the hosts are defined by a key difference: Steve Irwin, for all his apparent recklessness, was an experienced expert on the handling of wildlife, and Monaghan is an actor who likes cool stuff.
Just so, Wild Things proceeds without anyone checking Monaghan’s credentials, or worrying much about his experience with such things. Rather, Monaghan reassures the viewer of his animal-handling expertise as each episode goes on, and displays a knowledgeable (if not highly detailed) grasp of the biology and behavior of the animals he encounters. He has, it seems, done his research at least (and apparently learned much in his youth from his teacher-biologist father). Our host handles the creatures with a sure hand, whether hopping into a tree in the Mekong Delta to handle an enormous python in the premiere episode or grabbing spiders while on the trail of the world’s largest arachnid in Laos in the second.
Wild Things builds towards Monaghan’s encounter with his particular wild quarry at the climax of each episode, but it’s hardly all wildlife interaction up to that point. A veteran traveler in Southeast Asia, Monaghan cruises local markets, takes in rural fireworks festivals, and samples the cuisine (at one point, he tries what appears to be extract of waterbug venom, though it’s hard even for him to be sure of the origins of this strong liquid). Although the nature documentary elements are the focus, the added color of travel show features as well, as the general feeling of spontaneity (however carefully cultivated) adds a peculiar appeal to the package.
That package’s appeal will depend on how the viewer feels about Monaghan as a presenter and a screen presence. Gregarious and communicative, with cherubic cheeks, gumdrop nose, and bracelet-and-t-shirt casual attire, the young British actor is far from a traditional nature or travel host. If anything, the quasi-reality-show vibe of Wild Things draws his natural, laddish Mancunian charms out better than his fictional forays in film and TV have done. Although there’s a good deal of Charlie Pace and even a little Meriadoc Brandybuck on display, this program gives us the closest thing to the Dominic Monaghan of the LOTR Extended DVD extras, where his humour and disarming forthrightness hinted at greater things to come.
Wild Things is far from being that greater thing, but it’s as effective a vehicle for Monaghan’s interests and talents as he’s come across. It places him in exotic places and allows him to do interesting and seemingly dangerous things. But more than that, it allows him to pretty much be himself, as allows us to like him for it. This is not something that every performer gets a chance to do, even those who are bigger stars than Monaghan, and it’s what makes Wild Things more than the formulaic nature documentary exercise it might have otherwise been.