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Monkey” in the middle

Animal Planet’s blend of documentary and action struggles for balance

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Whatever happened to good old-fashioned nature shows? You know, National Geographic specials with dry British narration and lots of scenes of lions chasing gazelles? The latest attempt to jazz up the staid educational format comes courtesy of Dark Days in Monkey City (Animal Planet, Tuesdays, 10 & 10:30 p.m.), which takes footage of macaque monkeys in their natural habitat (abandoned ruins and surrounding vegetation in Sri Lanka) and crafts it into a narrative about clashing tribes, shifting alliances and regal characters with literary-sounding names (Lear, Portia, Gemini, etc.).

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Dark Days in Monkey City
Two and a half stars
Beyond the Weekly
Animal Planet: Dark Days in Monkey City

A disclaimer at the beginning bills the action as “inspired by” actual macaque behavior, and a real-life scientist shows up once an episode to explain certain aspects of monkey life, but with the show attributing inner thoughts and motivations to its characters (they even have flashbacks!), there’s no way to tell whether any of it is remotely real. In addition, the visuals are enhanced with special effects and small bits of transitional animation that resemble comic-book panels, adding to the prevailing sense of unreality. The line between documented phenomena and speculation is essentially obliterated.

But is that so wrong? Clearly this is meant as entertainment, not education, cooperation from the Smithsonian notwithstanding. And if it leads kids or teens to learn more about real primates, then it will have accomplished something. Animal Planet has already had great success with Meerkat Manor, a show that uses similar tactics to mold footage of meerkats into a sort of comedic soap opera, complete with names and character traits for various animals. Monkey City is in many ways just the darker, more action-oriented version of Meerkat Manor, although it has the added visual elements to set it apart from genuine documentary.

It also boasts a team of comic-book writers on staff, and appropriately pulpy, overwrought narration from actor John Rhys-Davies. In fact, the narration is so ever-present, thanks to its need to explain the narrative that the writers have created, that at times the footage itself seems almost superfluous. In an old-school nature documentary, the narrator could say something like, “The lion approaches the pack of gazelles, eager to feed,” and let the rest play out without comment. You’d pretty much get the idea. But a fight between monkeys in Monkey City cannot be set up with, “One monkey challenges the other for dominance.” Instead, it has to come with complicated back story and Shakespearean motivations and several supporting characters watching in the background. Thus, nonstop narration.

Early promotion for Monkey City, with its emphasis on “graphic novel-style animation” and hyping of the comics writers working behind the scenes, implied some sort of hybrid action-adventure show that used monkey footage as a springboard, and that’s not the case. The live-action scenes do not morph into animated sequences in which the monkeys talk or become superheroes. But why not? Nature purists are unlikely to appreciate the extreme liberties being taken with the footage, and people enticed by the comic-book look of the ads and the sinister title will be put off to encounter, essentially, a bunch of interchangeable monkeys doing monkey things. At some point, the folks at Animal Planet are either going to have to re-embrace carefully crafted educational programming, or just abandon realism altogether. In the meantime, Monkey City sits uneasily in the middle.

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