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“Wild Things” Breathes New Life Into the Nature Show

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Photo: BBC America

Actor-turned-naturalist Dominic Monaghan brings something different to the nature show genre. Photo: BBC America

In addition to the science and the cuteness, the visceral thrill of watching and experiencing an animal in the wild is what a great nature show should bring to audiences. As staid and ridiculous as it appears now, that’s what that 70s show, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” did for me when I was a child. And David Attenborough, the passionate British naturalist who is now nearing his 90s, was the master of the form, making interest in animal behavior and environmentalism infectious.

“That,” I thought as a child, “is what I want to do when I grow up.”

I may not have achieved my dream, but actor Dominic Monaghan did. He too was a lifelong fan of nature shows, one who collected lizards when he was a young boy growing up in Germany and England. For most of his burgeoning career as an actor — I first met him when he played one of the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings trilogy — he’s been a keeper of critters. And now he has his own nature show, “Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan,” to show for it.

You’ll immediately notice that Monaghan brings something different to the genre when you see his iridescent-colored fingernails clutching a slithering lizard or those chipped nails carefully caressing a giant spider. Monaghan has painted his nails his whole life. “I enjoy it,” he tells me. “I don’t think girls should have all the fun. And I would like to empower young guys to feel like they can have a painted nails and go off and have an adventure, too.”

It’s very much in keeping with Monaghan’s signature — “Be curious!” — something he believes extends beyond nature. “It’s how you present yourself in the morning,” he says. “You need to be curious about your world. I am obsessed with learning.” He goes by his own drummer, and breathes new life into the nature show format.

Monaghan’s zeal for getting close to the animals gives “Wild Things” an added kick. “I sometimes do push it. But I don’t see myself as a daredevil,” he says. “I am doing it to hopefully make a good scene for a television show and to help people better understand these animals. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.”

This season, Monaghan ended up in the hospital a few times, and he has 40 stitches in one arm to prove it. We’ll have to wait to see how it happens. In the first episode this season, he goes to Africa in search of a snake that almost puts him under the foot of an elephant.

The show has been more successful in the United States than back home, Monaghan says. Perhaps that’s due to American audiences who recognize him as Charlie from “Lost.”

“The only thing that bums me out is we get grouped in with reality TV, with the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boos,” he says. “I see it as a nature show.”

The demographic skews younger, mostly toward the 12-to-20-year-olds. What Monaghan finds most edifying is when whole families watch, because he can relate.

His mother used to watch “Pride & Prejudice,” and he might watch soccer with his father and brother, but nature shows brought them all together. “It was the one thing we’d watch together as a family,” he says.

The second season of “Wild Things” premieres Tuesday, March 25, 2014, on BBC America.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki