Mom's the Boss in Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor
- Laura MacCorkle Senior Entertainment Editor
- 2006 8 Jun
Premiere Date: June 9, 2006, 8:00 p.m. (ET/PT)
Run Time: 30 min.
Creator/Distributor: Animal Planet
Mirroring the human species—and the times—in which females have seemingly eclipsed males in terms of dominance and relevance, Animal Planet's new Meerkat Manor reality/docu-drama series shows that mom's the boss in the wild and wooly world of these masked mammals.
Filmed over the course of 10 years as part of a Cambridge University study, the intriguing Meerkat Manor chronicles the lives of the "Whiskers" family in Africa's Kalahari Desert. Meerkats are members of the mongoose family, and the Whiskers' "mob" (as a meerkat family is called) includes each personality needed to make up a suitable Dynasty or other evening soap: there's Flower, the dominant female who shows she's in charge; Zaphod is Flower's attentive partner and the dominant male who stands taller than the rest; Shakespeare is the dutiful son who helps rescue his younger, newborn brother; Tosca is Flower's adult daughter who has gotten herself pregnant without parental permission; and so on and so forth.
In the first episode—narrated without pretentiousness by actor Sean Astin (24, The Lord of the Rings)—it's established that Flower has the power. She's one tough lady, and you sure don't want to cross her. After recently birthing four pups, this "working mom" has got things to do to ensure she has an adequate milk supply for her offspring, get ready to breed again and keep her 29-member mob in line.
Multiple cameras have been set up all around the Whiskers' three-square mile territory, and Flower wears a radio collar around her neck to track movement. The shots are up-close and personal, and the colors and sounds of nature are quite engaging for the viewer's experience. (One camera even makes it underground, down the seven-foot drop for the comings and goings at the family's main burrow.)
On this day in question, no sooner is the sun up than Flower is off with the rest of the mob commuting to their "jobs" as food foragers. But what about the kids? No worries! From the narration we learn that "childcare isn't a problem when you're a meerkat … males and females take turns babysitting the boss's babies."
While the family digs for their daily sustenance (scorpions [meerkats are immune to the venom], beetles, spiders, centipedes, etc.), dominant male Zaphod stands watch looking for a possible predator (martial eagles, jackals) that might be interested in making a meerkat its meal for that day.
Meanwhile back at the burrow, the newborns begin investigating their new world. As they observe the adults in charge, they eventually learn how to dig for themselves and to stand upright on "three legs" (a meerkat's tail will grow to 8" in length and helps them, like a tripod, to balance in an upright position).
It's not long before one of the sitters appears to fall asleep on the job, as the heat of the mid-day sun takes its toll. This gives one of the family's rowdy "teenagers" the opportunity to snatch away one of the newborns (Mitch) from the safety of the burrow and off to have some fun. Pretty soon, the pack of teens tire of their little brother and leave him alone and exposed in the wild. Thankfully, older brother Shakespeare happens by and returns Mitch back to the burrow. All is well.
But the day is still young for the subordinate Shakespeare. As he returns to forage with the rest of the Whiskers, they all discover a deadly puff adder snake that is squatting in one of their satellite burrows (for use as a quick get-away from predators when out and about). The whole family joins in to try and rid their property of the unwanted inhabitant, but the snake soon retaliates and bites Shakespeare in the face and the hind leg.
The venom quickly fills the injured meerkat's system, and he is unable to keep up with the rest of the Whiskers. Shakespeare decides to make the solo voyage home and brave the possible threat of predators along the way. It's almost dark by the time he arrives, and it's all he can do to drag his sickly body just inside the burrow's front entrance. Will he make it through the night?
You'll have to watch the second episode to find out, and you know you will since you're probably already hooked (I am!). It's a great way to tease the audience and hold interest for the rest of the episodes in this 13-installment series—because at this point your emotions are involved. The humanization of the meerkats' daily lives and relationships make them relatable to us, and it's what makes this series work for all ages.
Now, contrast that to Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and you'll probably agree. Thirty years ago, one might care less what happened to the zebra trapped in quicksand or the mating rituals of the wallaby. It was just the facts and some dry commentary from host Marlin Perkins. There also weren't names, personalities, family lineages or storylines to draw us in. Thankfully, Meerkat Manor kicks it up a notch in true 21st-century, reality-show style (family feuds, secret love affairs, backstabbing, near-death experiences, etc.), and you can't wait to see what will happen next to this social and precocious clan.
What I hope happens next is a more balanced portrayal of the family's chief parental unit—Flower and Zaphod. Sure, Flower's got a lot on her plate (mating, birthing, establishing order, etc.), but I kept wondering if Zaphod was getting the short end of the stick in terms of less camera time and narration minutes. Not only does he get bloodied and bruised in episode 2 (it premieres right after the first episode on Friday night, so stay tuned to watch) while protecting his family and defending their territory, but Zaphod also spends a great deal of time grooming and giving attention to Flower.
I would venture to guess that his role is just as important as Flower's in the family household. Different, but equally important. Perhaps this preliminary imbalance will work itself out in upcoming episodes, and we'll see more of Zaphod as leader, protector and master of the Meerkat Manor.
- Drugs/Alcohol: None
- Language/Profanity: None
- Sex/Nudity: Nursing of pups is shown. A subordinate meerkat (Tosca) shows signs of pregnancy (enlarged abdomen and teats).
- Violence: Flower is shown fighting with other members of the Whiskers. Narrator informs viewers that she could also choose to kill Tosca's pups, since Flower doesn't tolerate anyone else's pups. In episode 2, Zaphod and the Whiskers clan are shown fighting with a rival mob. Zaphod's face is mildly bloodied. Depiction of puff adder snake in a stand-off scene could be frightening for smaller children.
Meerkat Manor premieres Friday night, June 9, 2006, at 8:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on Animal Planet. Click here for more information.