You have to love meerkats. With their perfect posture, graceful wee hands and button bright eyes, the African natives are every child's dream pet, puppy-dog cute and just begging to be anthropomorphized. Standing stock still as they scan the horizon for food and predators, their tiny faces are as watchful and wise as the statues of Easter Island.
It's no wonder they have their own TV show: Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor, which is back for its third season tonight.
Born of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, a long-term field study in the African desert, Meerkat Manor is a zoological reality show - Big Brother meets Animal Kingdom.
Through the glory of fiber optics, we are ushered into the burrows and the lives of the Whiskers, a clan of meerkats struggling to survive and multiply in an often hostile environment. Season three picks up after the Whiskers have been chased from their burrow by the murderous Commandos. They find a new grazing ground, but it is already occupied by the Zappa, so the Whiskers must do some chasing themselves, and not without a fair amount of nail-biting drama.
Like any good reality show, Meerkat Manor is heavily scripted.
The animals are given names right out of the Hollywood Parent's Guide- Flower, Tosca, Zaphod, Mitch - and semi-theatrical narration explains the animals' behavior in distinctly human terms. "Flower's daughter Rocket Dog tries to calm Flower's nerves with some tender grooming, but she isn't interested." "If (Mitch) completes his mission to find the rest of the family, he's destined for a hero's welcome."
This doesn't play anywhere nearly as ridiculously as it reads, because the narration is understated and the footage so well edited that even the most complex emotional responses seem on target, and one assumes the scientists involved wouldn't allow too many liberties to be taken.
The result is strangely hypnotic, family-friendly viewing.
The younger, and softer-hearted, in the audience must be warned that there is little human intervention, and meerkats do die or disappear occasionally. At the end of the first season, the beloved scrapper Shakespeare was seen no more, to much public outcry. It was the Shakespeare drama that brought the show to wider audience awareness, and possible iconic status.
The show begins its third season at 8:30 tonight on Animal Planet.