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Into the Pride - "Episodes 1 and 2"

Into the Pride debuts tonight at 8 p.m. EDT/7 p.m. CDT on Animal Planet.

Dave Salmoni has two passions: big cats and good television. He blends them in Animal Planet’s new series, Into the Pride, which benefits both from his big cat knowledge and his innate idea of what will make for compelling TV. At one point, Salmoni is instructing his camera crew on how to get a lion off of him should one attack (he advises them to push the lion off with a Jeep and then he’ll somehow roll under the Jeep!), but he cautions that someone should be rolling at all times. “I don't wanna wake up in the hospital and find out we didn't get the shot,” he says, and that should tell you all you need to know about him right there.

Unlike your typical Animal Planet star, Salmoni has a bit of a slacker vibe to him. His speech patterns are laconic, laced with a prominent Canadian accent, and his easygoing nature makes him a nice contrast to the wound-up lions who are the series’ other focus. As he wanders around a beautiful African morning, just another insignificant speck on the Namibian savannah, the series manages to lull you into its sedate, stately pace, which is a nice departure from the typical Animal Planet series, which often feels cut within an inch of its life, obscuring the animal action we all came to see in the first place.

I’m a sucker for shows that take the viewer inside of the world of a particular animal culture. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was a must-see when I was a little kid, and I signed on to Meerkat Manor unusually early in the show’s run. Into the Pride doesn’t anthropomorphize its animals to the point that many other series in this genre do, but it does follow a small enough pride of lions to give you a sense of all of the individual characters’ personalities, from the king and queen of the pride to the cubs who tumble around their tails.

The central focus of Into the Pride is this one pride, and by a stroke of luck, it’s small enough that the viewer gets plenty of time to get a sense of which animal is which and even tell them apart, something that can be hard even in animals with the most distinctive of patterns (which, of course, lions are not). Salmoni also names all of the lions and lets us know how he tells them apart, something that’s helpful when trying to tell the queen lion from one of the other two females or the king from the other male. Even the cubs get names, though their personalities aren’t so distinct beyond “lion cubs who like to play.”

It also helps the series that its central focus is embroiled in a situation that is literally life or death. If Salmoni can’t get this pride – described as a “rogue pride,” though there’s not a lot of perspective given on what that would necessarily mean – to calm down enough for visitors to the park it’s now based in to be comfortable snapping photos of it and gazing at the lions, all of the lions will be rounded up, put in a cage and killed for being too dangerous. So not only does Salmoni have to do the usual nature show tricks of informing the viewers about the lions’ world and showing us amazing footage of them in action, but he also has to figure out a way to ingratiate himself enough to them that they will come to regard all humans and their vehicles and their cameras with enough of a lack of interest that they won’t go on a self-defensive killing spree.

This actually turns out to be a fine hook for a series like this, and it provides enough of a ticking clock that every time Salmoni reaches out to queen Cleopatra and is rebuffed, both he and the audience feel it acutely. He’s only got six months to convince the park’s management that these lions can become a solid and safe draw for a lucrative eco-tourist audience. And at the same time, he has to figure out a way to let us all in on the action as it unfolds. Throughout the first two hours, which both air tonight, Salmoni slowly gains a few of the lions’ trust and continues to be ignored by the others, and it takes on a rhythm that’s oddly fascinating, like watching a documentary about a big cat Jane Goodall unfold in real time instead of after the fact.

Because there’s no guarantee of big action, Into the Pride is forced to be more contemplative than most Animal Planet series. While this is largely a good thing and the African footage that peppers these segments is about as beautiful as these sorts of things can be expected to be, it also lends the series a pace that some may find trying at times. Whenever Salmoni is not around the lions, the series can lurch to a halt, particularly when he’s declaiming about how much he misses home or befriending the park’s resident crocodiles. Still, a short interlude when he befriends a young dik-dik he names Little Richard (which leads to a line I should start using in everyday life: “Little Richard was my resident dik-dik”) is fun both because it’s so cute and because, well, dik-diks are among the few genuinely cute animals on Earth that haven’t already been exploited to death by networks like Animal Planet. (Though can Dik-dik Duplex be far behind?)

Whether or not you enjoy Into the Pride just might depend on how much you enjoy these sorts of television shows. If you’re into seeing animals do their thing in the wild and getting a better understanding of their societies, then you’ll probably eat this up. But it’s not going to convince non-believers in the genre that this is the best thing on TV either, like Meerkat Manor often could. Into the Pride and Salmoni deserve credit for letting their lions be lions and not trying too hard to force them to be interesting. The big cats are interesting in and of themselves, as are Salmoni’s attempts to make friends with them. But by not anthropomorphizing the lions or the other animals in the park, the series feels less like an animal-based soap opera and more like just hanging out in your backyard and watching nature go by. Assuming your backyard is in Namibia. Whether or not that’s going to be enough to hold your interest is up to you, but Into the Pride does about as good and compelling a job of telling this story as could be expected.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • I do like that Salmoni acknowledges right off the bat that he’s not all alone out in the bush and that he has a camera crew with him. Too many shows like this try to act like the host is the only guy around when we know that’s obviously not the case. A few of the crew members even become fun supporting characters for Salmoni to bounce off of.
  • I also like that Salmoni came out here after doing extensive training in big cat wrestling. How, exactly, does one get the opportunity to do THAT?
  • “Did the queen want to hang out with me? Or eat me? Could go either way.” This describes every house cat ever.