NATURE FILMS about other primates can be loads of fun, in part because the animals involved look so much like people. And in some instances, they act like them too.
Over the weekend, I took a breather from the pile of DVDs demanding attention to watch “Murder in the Troop,” an engrossing PBS documentary about a clan of baboons. Yet in viewing this “Nature” production, the rules governing baboon behavior kept evoking thoughts regarding rituals that are equally applicable to Hollywood.
Each baboon troop has a king who terrorizes subordinates. Oftentimes, he rises to this exalted position by ousting an older, established leader, usually in brief but bloody battles for supremacy.
Prone to strutting around ostentatiously, the king jealously guards his turf. Moreover, a new chief is willing to kill the troop’s young if they are perceived as a threat or hindrance to his expansion plans, which, for the baboons, involves access to fertile females. And the females, despite protestations that what they really admire is a good sense of humor, have a hard time resisting baboons with power and want to be “just friends” with other baboons. (OK, so maybe I’m projecting a little here.)
Nor are the baboons particularly generous in exhibiting reverence toward their elders. In fact, aging baboons are unceremoniously put out to pasture, including dominant males who have lost claims to leadership, though they are sometimes allowed to linger around their former stalking grounds. While the situation isn’t perfectly analogous, this would be the baboon equivalent of an independent production deal.
Even top baboons seldom rest easy, inasmuch as they’re surrounded by an assortment of unpredictable predators. Sometimes, they shriek and howl hoping the commotion will ward off an enemy, although the baboons engaging in these displays frequently lack the ability to back up their bravado.
Finally, when times get tough during drought periods and pools of water (or cash) dry up, it’s pretty much every baboon for him or herself. Then, when the rains finally come and all is lush (or flush) in the land again, serenity reigns, though never for terribly long.
AFTER SPENDING an hour absorbing “Murder in the Troop,” the whole “Circle of Life” concept that informed “The Lion King” appeared not so much ingenious as inevitable, especially given the climate conditions surrounding Disney in the 1990s. Apparently, those seeking to navigate the industry’s travails could have bypassed reading advice from William Goldman or Lynda Obst and devoted more time to watching Jane Goodall documentaries.
So the next time feelings of despair arise over what one might perceive as Hollywood’s boorishness, think about its anthropological underpinnings. After all, it’s not uncommon for our cousins along the evolutionary ladder to throw tantrums, fling feces and use their opposable thumbs to hire some ape to tap each other’s phones.
Whoops, got a little carried away there; the baboons don’t do that last part.
PAYBACK TIME: Since returning to Variety I’ve reviewed innumerable TV shows, and it’s been pointed out that those appraisals are sometimes less than kind.
Perhaps that explains why some readers have graciously volunteered to write “guest reviews” of “Square Off,” a new program in which I’ll be appearing that premieres this weekend on TV Guide Channel — or, as people keep saying, “The Joan and Melissa thing?”
Frankly, this latest addition to showbiz talk circuit might officially prove that we are running out of people to put on television, though some would contend that Ryan Seacrest’s myriad jobs demonstrate this scarcity already. Between “American Idol” and his gigs in syndicated radio and at E!, Seacrest gives hope to all attractive young white guys wondering when their three big breaks will finally come.
Anyway, in light of the barbs critics get to direct at shows on a daily basis, it does seem only fair to provide past victims the opportunity to return the favor. So for anyone inspired to register an opinion regarding the series or who merely wants to settle a score for past injustices (come on, Mark Burnett, or the producers of “Entourage,” you know you want to), please send them along. The best, or at least the most acerbic, will be excerpted in this space.
By the way, I’ve discovered directly addressing a camera is surprisingly difficult, warranting this apology to Billy Bush, Nancy O’Dell and Pat O’Brien: Maybe a chimp with ADD couldn’t do your jobs.
But I still bet a baboon could.