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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Inside Nature's Giants - "Great White Shark"

Illustration for article titled Inside Nature's Giants - "Great White Shark"
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When PBS says it's going inside nature’s giants, it really means it's going inside nature’s giants. The term has become used metaphorically in general to mean doing a profile, so I went into the episode expecting a profile of the Great White Shark. That is what happened, but it was done so by focusing on the dissection of a single, massive great white shark by a team of expects. By using that fairly tight focus, Inside Nature’s Giants works as a smart, accessible, and gory profile of the largest carnivorous shark.

The dissection is done by a team of experts in different fields, who all tend to be outgoing, interesting, and comfortable in front of the camera. Some seem to be attached to the six-episode show generally, like Joy Reidenberg, an expert on aquatic mammals, who is especially excited to have her first shark dissection. Joy brings much of the fun to the proceedings. She’s smart and excited, yes, but she’s also playful, lying down next to shark liver to measure its size or biting her lip til it bleeds, and laughing about it, when she encounters a shark while she's in a cage for the first time.

The show also brings on specific experts for each episode, like Enrico Gennari, an Italian shark researcher whose gleeful exuberance about the animal is matched only by his insistence that Jaws ruined the poor creature’s reputation. Inside Nature’s Giants is light on big-picture stuff, but it builds towards a conclusion that sharks are being mistreated, both by people who consider them deadly threats to human safety as well as fishermen who kill them for their fins. Like much of the program, it’s low-key, but effective.

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Camaraderie between the scientists involved is perhaps the most appealing part of the show, since it allows them to show what they find most interesting about the animal, but it’s only one component of many.

Inside Nature’s Giants also has some of the best use of CGI that I’ve seen in a nature documentary. It’s reasonably high-quality, which helps, but it’s also used directly to illustrate the workings of the body parts we see from the dissection. Watching how the shark’s jaws work and are regrown is fascinating enough, but when the CGI switches to a similar form with the evolutionary ancestor of the shark, it’s incredibly compelling and downright educational.

The show switches between different perspectives to best demonstrate whatever it needs to do. Here’s a YouTube video of a baby shark being born; there’s the narrator, making a complex subject simple. Richard Dawkins even shows up, albeit in a studio far from the dissection itself, in order to explain some of the evolutionary aspects of the fish, like how the shark’s teeth evolved from its skin. By cycling through each of these aspects, the show doesn't let any single one dominate to the point where it gets annoying.

It’s that balance that makes Inside Nature’s Giants work so well both as entertainment and education. It is gory, sure, and it does have some trouble wrapping the whole thing up at the end. But in a media environment where Planet Earth-style detached documentaries seem to be the way nature docs are moving, it’s nice to see a “scientists geeking out about cool animals” program work so effectively.

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Stray observations:

  • A couple previous episodes are available on the PBS website.
  • Most people survive rare Great White attacks. The sharks take an exploratory bite and find you’re not as tasty as a seal.
  • Coolest sequence of the episode: the bit where CGI, the corpse, and video of sharks shows how they thrust their jaw out in order to bite. The Goblin shark is weird.
  • “It’s taken a breathing apparatus and made a weapon out of it”
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