People still say, sort of as a nervous tic from 2008, that we’re in the golden age of TV, even if that sun set a while ago (where, after all, is 2020’s “Breaking Bad”?). Yet we can break it down into subcategories — everything else on your screen has been fragmented, so why not TV ages? Let’s just admit that we’re past the golden age of scripted dramas, probably, and absolutely past the golden age of sitcoms, as well as prime-time network news and anything with a Simpson in it. And give me a second to put my teeth in and I’ll tell you about mid-’90s MTV.
Yet technically advanced TV has never been better. Sports broadcasts now have so many cameras in so many places they’ve taken on the clarity and omniscience of a hi-def dream. Likewise, huge like the BBC and Disney and National Geographic have flung nature documentaries into the dang future, with slow-motion cameras, telescopic lenses, wild lighting setups and budgets that nurture insane patience. The technical leaps were obvious in the evolution from the first season of “Planet Earth” in 2006 through its follow-ups focused on oceans and Africa, ‘til its mindblowing second season in 2016. The precision and new moves — plus all the freakin’ drones, man — told incredible stories previously unseen, and the world loves ‘em. Animals are a true lingua franca, a perfect subject for borderless distribution platforms.
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The latest nature doc series to take a leap forward is Netflix’s “Night on Earth,” a run of a half-dozen hourlong episodes that take you into the dark side of the day, using a mix of older and newer techniques. The zero-light camerawork during moonless nights, under starlight the narrator tells us is 200 times dimmer than moonlight, will look familiar to “Planet Earth” aficionados. The silver-on-black thermal imaging gives the world a night-goggles look in photonegative, with lions’ whiskers and seals’ eyes and the blood of a gashed rhinoceros glowing white against the black skin. But the true showstoppers come on the full-moon nights when their cameras and color treatments can amplify the ambient light (400,000 times dimmer than the sun, we’re told) into the clarity and vibrance of daytime. Even on your laptop screen, which probably sucks at rendering true black, the photography will make you gasp.
What do animals do at night, anyway? Same as you or me, maybe with more bats involved. Small animals slink outside to eat and mate in the relative safety of dark, while predators listen and sniff and track ‘em down. The horror-movie hunting sequences serve up some genuine Nature Is Metal-ready moments, as when a lion takes down a wildebeest, and then gets run off by a pack of hyenas. Some hunters prefer a full moon; others, the pitch of the new moon. And death can strike even without a fang or claw. In the second episode, “Frozen Nights,” Japanese macaques cling to trees on a frigid night, while one outcast monkey has to huddle up to an unfriendly clique if he wants to survive the cold.
The night vision gives certain scenes a sort of bedtime vulnerability, as when a lion exhausted by her fresh kill flomps her head down on the throat of the wildebeest she was clamping on moments before. Something about the dark makes this a moody, late-night companion to the likes of “Planet Earth.” You won’t be quite as engrossed in the animals’ stories, somehow; the dark keeps us from seeing their expressions, their emotions, with that sort of intimacy or, well, color. But it’s a different mood you’ll strike here. The night is dark and full of terrors. You’re curled up in your bed with a laptop and a sleeping body beside you and nothing more fearsome than a cat lurking around your house. You’re safe. Might as well watch vampire bats feed in the dark and thank your lucky stars you’re not a wildebeest.