When deciding what new Nat Geo Wild’s show to review in honor of the channel’s Monday launch, I scanned the various screeners on my desk and found one that involved monkeys. Decision made. As a fellow primate, I have a soft spot for my furry cousins—especially any narrative that involves rebellion and simian intrigue. They had me at “EECH-KAWW!!!” Nat Geo Wild’s “Rebel Monkeys” (premieres Wed, March 31, 8pm ET) follows a roving gang of macaques as they roam the chaotic Indian city of Jaipur from their homebase at the Galta Temple (The Hindu population considers monkeys sacred). They raid fruit stands. They ransack kitchens. They pilfer food from taxi cabs. They even steal cigarettes. These are bad-ass primates. Rebels every one. And they’re fun to watch.
The structure of the series rings of some familiarity: Think Animal Planet’s “Meerkat Manor,” except it’s monkeys instead of meerkats and a chaotic urban environment instead of the tranquil Kalahari. Like Meerkat, the producers follow one crew and assign names to its leaders and most colorful characters. Like Meerkat, the stars must face rival gangs as well as internal power struggles. And like Meerkat, our subjects are cute. Really cute. You almost forget that they’re smelly, lice-infested animals that if provoked would probably use their tiny monkey thumbs to gouge out your eyeballs–and then eat them. I like to think they’re strict vegetarians but also notice those massive fangs. Uh, I’ll keep my distance.
Don’t expect Richard Attenborough-level anthropology here. Rebel Monkeys is more pseudo-reality show/drama than pure documentary, and many of the scenes are clearly staged, as it’s hard to believe that the camera crew trespassed right into someone’s apartment to follow a band of monkeys as they destroyed the place—and then stuck around to film the owner returning home to shoo them out with a broom. Or that the camera crew happened to be riding along with a cab driver who pulls over, walks away and leaves his windows conveniently open so that the waiting Band of Monkey Brothers could sack every morsel of food inside his vehicle. Or that a food cart operator would leave all of his food unattended in the middle of town, knowing full well that the city is crawling with hungry monkeys. You can guess what happened next.
But then again, staged or not, it’s entertaining to observe these macaques using their guile and acrobatic prowess to infiltrate almost any fortress or surmount almost any obstacle in search of food and water. Perhaps the most amazing scenes are watching the way these wily raiders navigate Jaipur’s tangled mess of power lines that literally stretch across every window and rooftop. The monkeys never miss their marks or fall to the streets below, although one unfortunate gang member gets seriously injured when he touches an exposed high-voltage line. And of course that drama quickly becomes a subplot as the locals try to save their sacred neighbor. Episodes often end with these kinds of cliffhangers, which should help audiences remain engaged in the mischievous lives of these furry bandits. The show transports the viewer to India and does a fabulous job conveying the chaotic pace of Jaipur and its industrious residents, who live on constant alert for monkey raids. In the end, it’s hard not to root for these rebels as they fight for survival in a decidedly unnatural habitat. Just keep your distance.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)