Night: Series Premiere

For some, daytime is that inconvenience that occurs between dawn and dusk. These night owls come to life once the sun sets and are easily identifiable: the blotchy-faced alcoholic, the spastic Red Bull raver, and the nearly extinct disillusioned beat poet. Animal trainer Brandon McMillan is more interested in another form of nightlife, however.

McMillan is the host of the Animal Planet’s new series, Night, which purports to look at what animals are up to after hours. Each episode focuses on a different animal, with the first two episodes serving up Humboldt squids and leopards as the animals du jour. “Oooh, squids!” you say. “Not exactly fascinating creatures.”

As it turns out, squids are quite fascinating. At least in the Sea of Cortez, which is where McMillan travels to in order to see them in action. Squids would seem to be an odd choice for the show’s premiere, as they don’t typically ignite a raging curiosity. Yet, McMillan’s discussions of the animals’ behavior make them intriguing, these discussions being one of the show’s strengths. Unfortunately, the episode also makes apparent considerable weaknesses.

The individual episodes divulge a wealth of information about their subjects. For instance, one learns that Humboldt squids are cannibalistic and have the strength to rip a grown man to shreds. Much of this background is provided via written text on the screen that pops up while McMillan is narrating — with some melodramatic flair. Each episode follows a basic structure, following McMillan as he insinuates himself into the animals’ worlds. If disturbing predatory animals with vastly superior night vision doesn’t always seem like such a smart plan, McMillan is only repeating patterns set by other Animal Planet explorers, such as Jeff Corwin and the late Steve Irwin, gleefully throwing himself into dangerous situations with unpredictable and easily angered killers. To swim with the squids, McMillan dons what is essentially chain mail over his wet suit; even then, his dive is preceded with warnings from his guide that the creatures could drag him down to the depths, use their barbed tentacles to grab limbs and attempt to dislodge them, and so on. His guide for the visit to Kenya’s leopards in tonight’s second episode offers similar warnings, few of which keep McMillan from leaping out of their Jeep with regularity.

The only genuine danger McMillan seems to encounter concerns an empty air tank, depleted because of his excited heavy breathing. Night amplifies the drama of this moment, cutting between McMillan rushing topside and his guide calling to him repeatedly. When he gets no answer, the guide notifies the boat crew that there is an emergency and… cut to commercial. It’s rather anti-climatic to learn that he has simply ignored the warning to keep an eye on his air regulator and gauge.

McMillan tries hard, performing a boy-like wonder at almost all he sees. (Such seeming childishness is combined with a mouth like a sailor’s, as the show is bleeped far more than any nature show I’ve seen – a consideration for parents.) He is fun to watch, but his presence can’t make up for the show’s lack of focus.

In “Leopards,” viewers are provided with lessons not only on leopards, but also zebras, baboons, and Cape buffaloes. In fact, the herd of buffalo gets more screen time than the one leopard the crew finds. It would have been preferable to see more leopards in a variety of situations than the one eating situation viewers see. In fairness, McMillan explains that leopards’ stealth makes them difficult to film; in that event, perhaps the episode should have been devoted to the various animals of the Masai Mara region of Kenya.

“Squids” falls short in another way, covering a nightly ritual in the Sea of Cortez, where fishermen catch squids, fillet them, and throw the remains overboard. This creates a feeding frenzy to which McMillan and his camera crew are witnesses. One can’t help but wonder about the feeding habits of those squids that don’t have a nightly smorgasbord delivered to them.

RATING 4 / 10