Like the Crocodile Hunter and the bevy of animal whisperers who followed him, Dave Salmoni is a man shaped by two formidable forces: his crazy love for animals and television.
Salmoni, who Animal Planet bills as its "apex predator expert," is already well established as the sexiest of the Call of the Wild boys, having hosted a variety of shows for Discovery and Animal Planet including "Predators vs. Prey" and "Into the Lion's Den."
"Into the Pride," which debuts tonight, unapologetically works his good looks to their best advantage. We are treated, at one point early on, to lingering shots of his gleaming Adonis-like form as he bathes behind a Namibian bush. Clearly the folks at Discovery took as many notes from the film iconography of Hugh Jackman as from Steve Irwin.
The setup of "Into the Pride" is as perfect as Salmoni's pecs. As the "go-to guy" for problematic big cats, he has been called in to work with a rogue pride of lions that must learn to sit still for the cameras of eco-tourists who visit Namibia's Erindi game reserve. This is, we are told with the mind-numbing repetition that still plagues these sorts of shows, the last chance for these lions -- having been booted out of all the best parks and reserves, they must shape up or be put down.
Not only does this give the series an actual goal and dramatic tension, but it also protects Salmoni from those nagging "Grizzly Man" type questions, such as why don't you just leave those poor lions alone? He can't. By taming them, he is saving them; next question. (The issue of why there is no place in this wide world for a cantankerous pride of lions is a topic for another series altogether.)
As there has been no horrific news emerging out of Namibia via Discovery, one is safe in assuming that Salmoni and his crew survived the experiment, which doesn't diminish the often nail-biting tension or the glorious camera work involved. Like the much more demented "Grizzly Man Diaries," "Into the Pride" is worth watching for the shots of the animals alone. As with "Meerkat Manor," the politics and personalities of the pride are quickly established -- Salmoni names the alpha lioness Cleopatra and her consort Brutus.
His attempts to anthropomorphize the animals, and draw comparisons between himself and some of the lions can get a bit wearing, but overall Salmoni is an engaging and informative guide, charmingly up front about the fact that this is a television show. We see things often relegated to a "making of" bonus DVD, including Salmoni's admonition that any attempt to rescue him from an attack not include the camera crew because he doesn't "want to wake up in the hospital and find out we didn't get the shot."
At one point, a member of the crew addresses the camera, delighting in the fact that while in most of these into-the-wild type shows, the talent have grade A accommodations while the crew is left to rough it in the bush, on "Into the Pride," the opposite is true. Salmoni really is the one camping out night after night while the crew gets to go back to the lodge, kick back and have a beer.
The night is not Salmoni's favorite part of the project, as he makes perfectly plain from the get-go. Toggling between "Blair Witch"-like self-filmed monologues from his tent and the eerie green-glow of night-time camera work on the outside, these moments capture the actual bravery of Salmoni's quest even more effectively than the various lion charges.
His chronicles of those 3 a.m. doubts that affect even those of us safe and comfortable in our beds go far in humanizing him and taking the project even further into the strange and lovely land of iconic television.
'Into the Pride'
Where: Animal Planet
When: 8 and 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)