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Television Review

Proximity trumps pathology

'Grizzly Man Diaries' celebrates naturalist's work

Timothy Treadwell A new Animal Planet series focuses on Timothy Treadwell, who lived among Alaskan bears until he was killed by one. (Timothy Treadwell)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / August 29, 2008
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"The Grizzly Man Diaries," Animal Planet's new eight-episode series, arrives tonight at 9 as a very unlikely spinoff. The disturbing tone of "Grizzly Man," the 2005 documentary about the life and violent death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, seemed to close off forever the possibility of enjoying Treadwell's voluminous bear footage.

With stunning intimacy, "Grizzly Man" gave us a lost man who lived with grizzlies in Alaska on and off for 13 years, until he and his girlfriend were killed by one. Director Werner Herzog didn't judge Treadwell's hubris so much as he coldly dissected the grizzly man's human failings and exposed his delusions. The footage that Treadwell filmed (and Herzog used) came off like a seriously off-kilter parent telling his children bedtime fairy tales about lovable stuffed animals.

On a deeper level, Herzog made "Grizzly Man" into a cautionary tale about the broad human desire to romanticize nature, despite its indifference and hostility. His movie, which has aired on both the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, still serves as a sort of brutal counterpoint to all the melodramatic animal reality series such as "Meerkat Manor" that are the bread and butter of those same channels. It seems to warn viewers against the allure of our anthropomorphic urges.

And yet here is "The Grizzly Man Diaries," edited together film clips, photographs, and journal entries from Treadwell's years in Alaska's Katmai National Park. It's the same strange Treadwell from "Grizzly Man," with his little-boy voice and his cutesy nicknames (Letterman, Emmy, Aunt Melissa) for the massive creatures that surround him. He refers to himself as "your Dad" when he talks to the bears, and he fawns over "baby Letterman" as if the cub were his own offspring, even after he sees Letterman eat one of the cub's dead siblings.

But instead of focusing on Treadwell's pathologies, and the unorthodoxy of his methods, the series tries to honor the power of his work - his fearlessness and the amazingly close-up intimacy he presumed with generations of bears. Treadwell was truly and ultimately successful when it came to providing us with vivid images of mundane bear life. You don't feel as though he's on the other side of glass, with a group of scientists, studiously watching a bear catch a fish, pull off its skin, and eat its flesh. You feel his awe in the presence of raw survival techniques, gaping at the grizzlies without the safety of distance. We've seen similar footage of these bears before, but usually with far less immediacy.

"The Grizzly Man Diaries" doesn't try to hide what we know about Treadwell; the series is tinged with an undeniable pathos, as Treadwell's made-up stories about the bear families so obviously double as his own projected psychodramas. And each episode reminds us of how brutally the self-styled naturalist died.

But still, the goal of this show is not to look into Treadwell's heart of darkness so much as to look out of it, to see what he saw - bears digging for and opening up clams or cubs playing with one another. He gets up in their faces, he literally touches them, he tracks them across the years. "The Grizzly Man Diaries" manages to let us appreciate the fruits of Treadwell's labor and life, without asking us to submit to his fantasies.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

The Grizzly Man Diaries

On: Animal Planet

Two episodes tonight, 9-10

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