RIVER MONSTERS on Animal Planet
Pros: Something wild in every episode; fascinating locations; educational value
Cons: The program seems to be running out of ideas and steam…
Since its premiere in 2009, the Animal Planet channel’s documentary program River Monsters has rapidly become the channel’s most popular. This typically hour long program follows British-born biologist and fisherman Jeremy Wade around the world as he attempts to find – and catch – some of the biggest, most scary fish in the world – many of which have been blamed for (sometimes fatal) attacks on humans. For the most part, it’s not difficult to see why this show has such a loyal following; in a way, it’s a variation on popular cryptozoology programs like Monster Quest, Finding Bigfoot, or Destination Truth but there’s a big difference between those shows and Wade’s program. Namely, while Monster Quest and the like could talk all they want about scientifically examining the phenomenons of Sasquatch, giant squid, or flying humanoids, they rarely find much of any hard evidence to prove or disprove the existence of any of the creatures they examine. Wade’s program, on the other hand, regularly features something crazy – and real- that the angler pulls out of some of the most unlikely places. In previous episodes, Wade has caught absolutely gigantic freshwater stingrays in the waterways just outside Bangkok, Thailand as well as man-eating bull sharks in the inland canals of Florida.
Now entering its sixth season (which a somewhat remarkable feat in itself), River Monsters quite obviously found itself at a bit of a crossroads: many of the more unbelievable man-eating freshwater creatures of the world had already been featured in episodes of the show. In its early seasons, there were many more eye-popping creatures seen, while in more recent episodes, the program seems to have almost been pulling at straws in an attempt to find subject matter (in the fifth season for instance, Wade examined the catfish who inhabit the Chernobyl reactor’s radiation-drenched cooling pools as well as conducted a survey to determine the truth behind the legends of the Loch Ness monster). It was almost inevitable then that, by the 2014 season, some of the long-held traditions of the show be changed up a bit, and the producers and Wade have indeed switched up a few things. Instead of going around the world in search of often mythical-type creatures, this season will feature Wade spending its duration in the Amazon, investigating various reports of dangerous creatures and/or fatalities as a result of animal attack.
Episodes of this program (which play out similar to a murder mystery) typically begin with Wade introducing some sort of story or legend about a flesh-eating creature in a river system, lake or creek. After traveling to the location in question, gathering intelligence from fellow fisherman, and examining the local culture a bit, Wade inevitably sets out with his rod and reel to try and catch the beast that he believes may be responsible for the attack. One might think that this show would be a bit of a bore: after all, how exciting can it be to watch a guy fish for days on end in the search for an inevitably elusive monster fish? Here’s where the producers and editors typically work a bit of magic: condensing the week or so spent on location down to a tightly-constructed hour or so of pretty interesting television. Recently, the program has gone all out in their recreation of animal attacks: some of these are frequently fairly graphic – especially when accompanied by actual images of victims. And the kicker is that, in every episode that I’ve seen save one, Wade does indeed catch something incredible by the end.
Although much of the River Monsters show is more of the reality TV variety in following Wade’s adventures and exploits, the program does usually provide a brief but fascinating look at cultures in various foreign countries. Many of the locations featured in this show are well off the beaten path, so it’s neat that this show does shine some light on oft-forgotten corners of the globe. As might be expected, the program also spends some time focusing on the actual fish themselves, and I suspect that viewers would learn quite a bit about fish behavior and biology by watching this show a few times. Generally speaking, the camera work is very nice, frequently utilizing breathtaking landscape shots. Wade’s somewhat dry commentary may not be of the energetic variety of a nature doc host like the late Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, but he clearly knows what he’s talking about and has some cool stories to tell.
Going into the sixth season, I was a bit skeptical as to whether or not this program could just continue indefinitely. The program has seemed to run out of steam a bit in recent seasons, and its continued production almost seemed like it happened because people expected it to, not because Wade or the producers really had anything more to say. Having now seen the two-hour season six premiere on April 6, 2014, I think its safe to say this series might yet have some life left in it. This episode (entitled “Amazon Apocalypse”) dealt with an accident in the early 1980s in which a crowded passenger boat sank just off a dock deep in the Amazon jungle. Apparently, many of the persons on board the ship (some of whom were injured in the actual sinking) were attacked by unknown predators as they struggled in the water. Wade’s investigation of the case not only probes the dark, muddy waters of the Amazon in search of large, potentially man-eating predatory fish, but also takes a look at the way the ecology of this massive river system has changed in the 30-plus years since the incident. Wade initially comes up with a list of potential “suspects,” then narrows down the list as he learns more about the incident, before finally coming up with a portrait of the water-bound killers, but also an explanation of the circumstances that led to those creatures actually feasting on human victims.
Though it initially struck me as being redundant for Wade to spend a whole season in the Amazon, where many a River Monsters episode has been filmed, it was pretty clear from the “Amazon Apocalypse” episode that there are still many mysteries regarding this river system and its inhabitants. Honestly, there’s not another location that would be worth spending this much time in – the Amazon probably has the most potentially dangerous creatures living in it and is rivaled only perhaps by Thailand for having the downright biggest varieties of dangerous freshwater fish.
I suppose that there’s a crowd out there that would simply find this show boring – after all, it’s not especially sexy and doesn’t feature celebrity train-wrecks. Worse than that, it’s educational! On the other hand, if a viewer is looking for a documentary program that typically features something that will just make your jaw drop (due to the size and viciousness of many of these creatures), look no further. While I’m not entirely convinced that this show can carry on indefinitely, I remain hopeful that it will continue to astonish viewers in its sixth season and beyond. For me, River Monsters is one of the more captivating and genuinely interesting shows on TV today; recommended.
Amazing – and not shopped!