Despite the arresting title and imagery, this latest CNN documentary feels more like a showboating travelogue than a sober exploration of environmental issues — creating another opportunity for that new breed of TV hybrid, anchor-adventurer Anderson Cooper, to go play grown-up Jonny Quest (an unerring resemblance, by the way), along with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin. Ambitious in its scope and high-definition look, “Planet in Peril” is a laudable premise, but also highlights how the emphasis on showcasing reporters in the field can obscure the message as opposed to helping clarify it.
Split into two parts, the opening installment seeks to impress with its globetrotting investigation of smuggling and consumption of endangered species, traveling from seedy Thailand markets to Madagascar and China, where Gupta discovers restaurants that serve illicit delicacies — including (yuck) deer, dog and tiger penis — and polluted rivers the government isn’t eager to discuss.
Corwin, meanwhile, gets to approximate the old “Wild Kingdom” act by cavorting with beasts, but the gee-whiz segments on species loss and deforestation feel conspicuously thin — a poor man’s version of Discovery’s jaw-dropping “Planet Earth,” without the riveting predator-on-prey action. Then again, that’s partially because the production so conspicuously pushes its talent forward, when more talking heads and charts might convey the information better.
The second half, devoted to climate change and overpopulation, represents a minor improvement but still exhibits this tendency to focus as much on Cooper as the topic, whether he’s snowmobiling across Greenland’s dwindling ice sheet in a parka or rappelling down a glacier. Oh, and by the way, the Arctic Ocean is declining at a record rate that threatens polar bears with extinction, while the rising Pacific sea level risks causing the Carteret Islands to disappear. Somehow, it all plays like “Environmentalism for Dummies.”
Handsomely produced and shot, “Planet in Peril” — like CNN’s recent “God’s Warriors,” which predictably drew conservative fire for daring to draw parallels between Christian and Jewish fundamentalism and the Islamic variety — reflects a sizable investment in serious longform news, primetime terrain the broadcast networks have almost entirely abandoned. Given that, there’s a temptation not to say anything that would discourage the cable net from pursuing such endeavors.
Just showing up, however, is only half the battle, and in this particular project, CNN appears more preoccupied with positioning its chess pieces for maximum exposure than building toward a winning endgame.