The first thing our daughter learned once she could walk was which button turned on the television set. For this reason, I keep all the televisions in the house tuned to the National Geographic Channel. The complex relation between universal remote control, television, cable box, DVD and VCR is something my parents have only recently begun to master, so I figure I have a few more months before my two-year-old figures out how to get straight to the cartoons.
To further cloud the issue, before allowing her to watch cartoons, I like to go through elaborate and strange rituals. I will press random buttons on the remote control. I will pop a tape in the VCR. I will take a disk out of the DVD player. I will flip light switches on and off. I will program the microwave. I will perform brief dances and make incantations.
By the time the cartoons come on two things have happened. First, my daughter has no clue what combination of actions produced the cartoons. Second, by the time I'm done she has usually either found something else to do or fallen asleep.
I heard the television come on the other morning and walked in to find my daughter glaring at the National Geographic Channel, annoyed that Dr. Brady Barr and his Reptile Wild were not being portrayed in bright colors and snippets made for the attention span of an ADHD gnat. She went to rummage in her toy box, no doubt poring through her beginner's vocabulary for words to describe what a killjoy Mommy was. Mommy, on the other hand, glanced at the television and was utterly captivated by what she saw.
Dr. Brady Barr (a pleasant, good ol' boy type that you'd expect to see coaching peewee football rather than probing crocodiles) was explaining that although he normally deals with snakes and gators, today he was going to help a colleague catch eels so they could record the frequency of the electric shock they delivered.
What caught my eye was this: a net being hauled out of a murky river; half a dozen five-foot electric eels; and Brady and his buddy trying to pick the eels up while getting zapped repeatedly, even through thick rubber gloves and boots. It was the best thing I ever saw.
For a good three minutes, they twitched, danced, and struggled to keep their language clean for the cameras while the local guides looked on and smirked. I was sorely disappointed when they figured out that scooping the eels up with plastic buckets was easier. Keep your Crocodile Hunters and your snake wranglers. Those kinds of bites are nasty and potentially maiming, which isn't a laughing matter. Eels, on the other hand, are just good, clean fun.
I was still sniggering about it when I saw an ad later that day for the new season of the Simple Life, wherein pointless celebrities Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie take to the road. Instead of laughing at them bumbling about a farm and getting dirty, we are supposed to laugh at them bumbling cluelessly about public roads and small towns. How much better would it be if you sent them to South America and had them help collect eels in a catch-and-release scientific survey?
Paris: "Omigod, these eels are icky!" BZZZZT.
Nicole: "Shut up!" BZZZZT.
Yeah, I'd tune in. Week after week.
Actually, the pairing of National Geographic style and Fox style reality shows has already begun. MTV has a series called "Wild Boyz" that features two perpetually-under-the-influence types performing inadvisable stunts like dressing up as a zebra and approaching lions in a wildlife reserve and standing on mounds of biting ants. I've started checking the episode guides just in case they go eel collecting.
Right now, I'm waiting for the network to do a series called the "MTV Beagle", where they show that a modern day Darwin could have come up with the same conclusions he reached journeying through the Galapagos without ever having to leave his couch.
Take the Galapagos finches, for example: tiny-brained, tedious little birds that appear everywhere on the islands. Close inspection reveals minor differences that are easily overlooked, but that show how Nature, hitting upon one success, will go on to over-do the idea until it is run into the ground. Our couch-potato's parallel? Reality television shows.
But there are more similarities. The Galapagos has giant, slow-moving tortoises; we have the DMV. The Galapagos has scaly, cactus-eating iguanas; we have Bea Arthur and Janet Reno. The Galapagos has several species of red- and blue-footed boobies; we have Mardi Gras, Spring Break and Janet Jackson.
Simply by flipping through channels, a modern-day naturalist could easily reach the same conclusions as Darwin did: that nature, television programming and mankind are all in a constant state of ...evolution? Into something better?
Okay, so if we want to support the theory that we're evolving into higher life forms, we should stick to studying the Galapagos. If we're okay with the theory that we're devolving rapidly into sludge, go ahead and study the TV Guide.
That's the conclusion I came to when I went out to the kitchen that evening and found my husband pushing buttons on the microwave.
"What are you doing?" I asked him.
"Wild Boyz is going to be coming on in another five minutes, but the television is stuck on the National Geographic Channel. I think I did the dance wrong."
Maybe it was kinder for us all that Darwin lived when he did. Someday my daughter will thank me for not letting her watch too much TV. Either that or she'll book me a trip to South America to help catch eels.
Comments and reality TV concepts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.