new on television: crikey! another coldblooded reptile show

Do you like seeing a crocodile chomp down on a struggling, mewling gazelle? How about on a struggling, bleating wildebeest? Or perhaps you want to see the softer side of these ferocious predators, with mother crocs carefully ferrying babies in their toothy maws? Maybe you just like listening to biologists with Australian accents? I think I have the show for you.

Nature, one of the longest-running natural history programs on television, has put together a new four-part miniseries called ”The Reptiles,” premiering Sunday night on PBS with the first episode, ”Alligators and Crocodiles.” (Episodes on snakes, turtles, and lizards will air on subsequent Sundays.) So, is this show any different from Steve Irwin’s ”Crocodile Hunter” or any other nature program on Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel? Well, Nature’s tone is much more restrained – it’s only 5 percent death-defying crocodile wrestling instead of the usual 98. And there’s not even one gulped ”crikey.” Still, haven’t we seen this all before?

Perhaps a little: You’ll get dictionary definitions of what a reptile is, and what it means to be coldblooded. But the program’s raison d’etre is the stunning animal footage – from alligator eyes reflecting light in the nighttime gloom to the crocodile’s impressive, water-churning ”death rolls” that help it tear flesh off large carcasses. (Episode 1 even delivers a film first: you’ll see a torpid crocodile lay eggs, which are then scooped up by a biologist’s hand. It’s about as exciting as it sounds — not very.) And it’s odd that even after seeing these brutal reptiles slaughter a variety of helpless prey, you can still feel sympathy for the puny alligator hatchlings who get their comeuppance from fish, fowl, and mammal.

In future episodes, you’ll see an animal worker try to hunt down a hidden black mamba in a villager’s house in South Africa, a very tense few minutes of film. You keep waiting for the snake to launch itself at the guy as he flips open cupboards and gingerly checks behind bedding. You’ll also see a pack of small turtles attack a dove, forcing it down under the mud and biting off chunks of its flesh with their beaks. Who knew turtles could be so bloodthirsty? And I, a confirmed mammal-phile, have to admit that I was amused at how doglike the National Zoo’s Komodo dragon, Kraken, appeared as she ran for her weekly ration of dead rat at her keeper’s whistle. And did I mention the two-headed snake?

“The Reptiles” makes it clear that these animals are worth saving: They’re fascinating creatures, beautiful, terrifying, and even funny at times. In the last episode, you’ll meet a reptile-enthusiast named Henry Lizardlover (yes, that’s his legal name). He shares his Los Angeles home with 37 lizards, which he kisses repeatedly. Love me, love my lizards, says Henry, who makes part of his living selling photos of them posed suggestively on tiny chaise lounges. Sorry, Henry, even with four hours of solid, educational reptile programming under my belt, I still don’t want to kiss one.

The Reptiles
Four hour-long films airing Sundays at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (WGBH channel 2)
On January 31, 2003, the full web companion to the series can be found at:

This review appeared in the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 1/28/2003.
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