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A legacy on display

'Ocean's Deadliest' celebrates Irwin's enthusiasm

Steve Irwin (right, holding a sea snake next to host Philippe Cousteau) died while filming was in progress. Steve Irwin (right, holding a sea snake next to host Philippe Cousteau) died while filming was in progress. (ANIMAL PLANET)

Remember that out-of-sequence moment, toward the end of "Pulp Fiction," when John Travolta -- killed in an earlier scene -- appeared again, doing something hopelessly mundane? You felt an awkward mix of relief and wistfulness, a sense that something simply wasn't right.

That's a bit what it feels like to see Steve Irwin charging through the animal kingdom in "Ocean's Deadliest," the 90-minute special that will be simulcast tomorrow night at 8 on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. The filming was in progress when Irwin died last September, stung by a stingray in a freak attack. But here he is onscreen, as exuberant as ever, wrestling sea snakes and crocodiles and generally courting danger.

According to an Animal Planet spokesman, the network considered incorporating Irwin's death into the special, but decided instead to leave it out completely. Were it not for a brief "In Memory" message at the end -- and the Irwin tribute that airs at 9:30 under the title "Crikey! What an Adventure" -- a news-deprived person would have no idea the man was gone.

Except that nearly everyone knows, a fact that makes "Ocean's Deadliest" feel disconcertingly like a snuff film. No, nothing ghastly happens onscreen; when he was killed, Irwin was filming a scene for a children's show. But you can't help but wince here at his signature, swashbuckling moves, as when he holds up a giant sea snake -- the graphics declare it the "World's Most Toxic Reptile" -- and says, "If he wanted to kill me, he could! Quite easily!"

It's a strange way to pay homage to a man whose death proved the relative insanity of his work. (And it's hard to know exactly what the "Crikey!" tribute will bring; it wasn't provided to critics for review.) But seeing Irwin in the wild does make it clear why he had such overwhelming success. The man had an incredible sense of theatrics, a childlike enthusiasm that brightened the screen; in "Ocean's Deadliest," he dives into deep waters in khaki shorts, and jumps up and down like a 6-year-old at the prospect of measuring a crocodile. At one point, underwater, he picks up a venomous stone fish, tears off his goggles and face mask, and mouths a word that looks to be, "Good!"

And when he isn't onscreen, his presence is missed. Host Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, is conventionally handsome and comparatively bland; it's hard to care when he declares his close encounter with a shark "one of my dreams." So it is with the other real-life adventurers in the film -- a snake-venom expert (yawn), a guy who survived a shark attack (so?). They may understand animals, but they don't know TV.

Irwin is the specimen we care about, and beyond these glimpses of a master at work, there's no real reason for "Ocean's Deadliest" to exist. The overarching message -- every creature has a role in the ecosystem -- isn't exactly news to TV viewers who have feasted on a glut of animal shows over the years. And last weekend's "Nature" retrospective on PBS proved that animals themselves, going about the mundane business of survival, can be compelling enough.

Irwin's legacy is the rise of a different sort of wildlife show, a combination of "Nature" and "Jackass," in which humans, doing dangerous stunts, provide the bulk of the drama. But it takes a special sort of person to be as interesting as an animal. Steve Irwin was one of them, up until the end.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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