Fridays at 9 p.m.
3 out of 5 stars
Paul Watson is a modern-day pirate. A silver-haired curmudgeon with a walrus mustache and protruding belly, he navigates his ship, the Steve Irwin, through frigid arctic waters in search of the fishing freighter Nisshin Maru. But Watson isn’t after treasure or weapons. As the subject of Animal Planet’s seven-part documentary “Whale Wars,” Watson wants nothing but safety for his best friends: three three-ton whales.
Fighting on the side of ethics, not legality, Watson’s merry band of activists, the Sea Shepherds, ambush whale-shellacking Japanese ships and pelt them with stink-bombs. Watson’s crew, a multinational band of inexplicably eager twenty-somethings, sleep in poster-sized beds and subsist on three vegan meals a day. They have mixed motives — ranging from a desire for adventure to a vague sense of indignation — and little experience.
As members of, to paraphrase Watson, the whores of the conservation movement, the Shepherds constantly struggle against Greenpeace, who won’t cooperate with them, and against federal authorities, who insist that boats like the Maru operate well within legal parameters. Searching for another boat, Watson and company get a false tip that leads them tragically — and a little comically — to a giant iceberg. A lot of drama could be mined from the ennui that accompanies the members of the marginalized activist group living in cramped quarters. Unfortunately, a tense phone call with Greenpeace and a few minutes of Watson bitching are all we hear of these emotional predicaments.
“Wars” also fails to make the most of the existential questions it raises. Most of the Steve Irwin’s crew say they’d give their life to save a whale. What leads one to love animals so voraciously that they’d go kamikaze for an aquatic mammal? We’ll never know, because Watson’s constant reminders that anyone could die are met with only short nods from the crew, as if they were reminders to pick up dry-cleaning. Either the Irwin’s crew is emotionally hollow, or, more likely, “Wars” found it more convenient and palatable to gloss over the morbidity.
Instead, “Wars” focuses on tangible, physical problems. A bout of crew seasickness gets an extended sequence. A capsized dinghy and a broken helicopter blade occupy twenty more minutes. A demonstration on how to throw stink-bombs might be helpful, especially for anyone practicing for next “Devil’s Night,” but it isn’t too engaging. Details of this kind fill more technical shows like “American Chopper” and “Modern Marvels,” and rightfully so. With “Wars,” however, much more could be done. Lack of working equipment, cooperation and success are ingredients for quality reality TV drama, but Watson’s crew is so single-minded they move on from failure to failure without pause. There’s a reason Ahab didn’t spend half of “Moby Dick” describing the Pequot: The interaction and minds of men at sea hold much more interest than mundane logistical details.
But “Wars” still remains extremely watchable, because, even though it isn’t humanized, at least it’s contextualized. Watson’s long and sticky — and, perhaps now, a little stinky — relationship with Greenpeace bears listening: He founded the organization in 1978 and was unanimously ousted years later for his radical views. The David vs. Goliath dynamic between Watson and his old allies is worth exploring in detail; hopefully it will be. “Wars” also adroitly brings up thorny ethical issues — is it wrong to eat an intelligent animal or demonstrate this nautical brand of civil disobedience? — without picking sides.
Ultimately, “Wars” can’t be faulted for playing a bit like the title of its theme song, The Smashing Pumpkin’s “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” It simply tries to dress up a miserable situation by focusing on trivialities. The show is decent, but I would’ve loved to see Watson ask, to quote Billy Corgan, “What do I get, for all my pain?”