Animal Planet is eager to expand its brand into an edgier orbit, and “Whale Wars” certainly fits the bill. Accompanying the crew of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society on their crusade to disrupt Japanese whaling in the Antarctic, the program toes a fine line between gaining insight into these seafaring zealots and, through seven weeks of exposure, providing a megaphone (to the extent the Discovery-owned channel can be a “mega” anything) for their cause. Ultimately, the series contains just enough skepticism to mitigate charges of being exploited as a questionable enterprise’s PR tool.
Under the leadership of Captain Paul Watson — who broke with Greenpeace because he felt its methods weren’t radical enough — the Sea Shepherd gang sails south (aboard a boat named the Steve Irwin, after Animal Planet’s late star) under a pirate flag. The ship is staffed by an international crew of 34 — most of them novices who spend the first leg of the no-frills voyage seasick and retching their three daily vegan meals over the side.
Their aim: To find, confront and interfere with Japanese whaling vessels by “nonviolent” means, though the planned measures include hurling stink bombs onto what they call “the killer ships” to disrupt their operation.
Like the most extreme quadrants of the animal-rights movement, these personalities take their passion to off-putting heights — even if that means endangering other people’s lives, as well as their own, to fulfill their objectives.
“Whale Wars” already made news because this expedition turned out to be unusually eventful, with the arrest of two crew members aboard a Japanese vessel and claims that Watson was shot. The Japanese, meanwhile, said four people aboard their ship were injured by the Sea Shepherd antics.
When the premiere plays like a straightforward documentary, the hour is genuinely interesting, in the way that any fanaticism (the channel’s less-controversial new series “Living With the Wolfman” comes to mind) can be engrossing. As constructed, though, “Whale Wars” also dabbles in the narrative language of reality shows, seeking to foster suspense about how the mission is progressing while highlighting the less-than-galvanizing personalities of the boat’s crew.
With its launch of Planet Green — a separate channel devoted to environmentalism — Discovery has staked out saving the planet as not just a pro-social initiative but also a corporate business niche. By that measure, “Whale Wars” both dovetails with the environmental mandate and promises to help broaden Animal Planet’s soft-focus image. The show itself, however, will be harder to swallow if subsequent episodes amount to little more than a forum for strident cetacean enthusiasts to spout off.