Meerly beloved

Times Staff Writer

Something there is that just has to love a meerkat. With their perfect posture, graceful wee hands and button bright eyes, the African natives are every child’s dream pet, puppy-dog cute and just begging to be anthropomorphized. Standing stock still as they scan the horizon for food and predators, their tiny faces are as watchful and wise as the statues of Easter Island. They really should have their own show, and of course they do: Animal Planet’s “Meerkat Manor,” which is back for its third season.

Born of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, a long-term field study in the African desert, “Meerkat Manor” is a zoological reality show -- “Big Brother” meets “Animal Kingdom.”

Through the glory of fiber optics, we are ushered into the burrows and the lives of the Whiskers, a clan of meerkats struggling to survive and multiply in an often hostile environment.

Season 3 picks up after the Whiskers have been chased from their burrow by the murderous Commandos. They find a new grazing ground but it is already occupied by the Zappa, so the Whiskers must do some chasing themselves, and not without a fair amount of nail-biting drama.

Like any good reality show, “Meerkat Manor” is heavily scripted.


The animals are given names right out of the Hollywood Parent’s Guide to Naming Children -- Flower, Tosca, Zaphod, Mitch -- and a semi-theatrical narration explains the animals’ behavior in distinctly human terms. “Flower’s daughter Rocket Dog tries to calm Flower’s nerves with some tender grooming, but she isn’t interested.” “If [Mitch] completes his mission to find the rest of the family, he’s destined for a hero’s welcome.”

This doesn’t play anywhere nearly as ridiculous as it reads because the narration is carefully understated and the photography so well edited that even the most complex emotional responses seem on target, and one assumes the scientists involved wouldn’t allow too many liberties to be taken.

The result is strangely hypnotic, family-friendly viewing. It is fascinating to watch the behavior of such a socially complicated group of animals up close and personal in the wild, to be reminded of not just the brutality but the selflessness that can be found in nature -- when Sophy is left to guard the pups in an early episode, she is as brave and stalwart as a movie heroine.

The younger, and softer-hearted, in the audience must be warned that there is little human intervention and meerkats do die or disappear occasionally.

At the end of Season 1, the beloved scrapper Shakespeare was seen no more, to much public outcry. In fact, it was the Shakespeare drama that brought the show to wider-audience awareness, and possible iconic status.

Early in this season, the FX drama series “Rescue Me” made much of the meerkats when Tommy Gavin, asked about his activities during an arson investigation, described watching Shakespeare struggle for his life on the “Manor.”

With its perpetual drama of love, sex and death, “Meerkat Manor” is precisely the sort of show an antihero like Gavin would be drawn to. And those meerkats, they’re just so darn cute.



‘Meerkat Manor’

Where: Animal Planet

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)