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Green screen

TV aims to help save the Earth. Can shows educate and entertain, or just flatter and sell?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

If you've ever watched the sitcom "Dharma and Greg," which ran from 1997 to 2002, you undoubtedly remember Dharma's parents. "Lifemates" Abby and Larry were non-materialistic New Age parodies obsessed with juicing cabbage, aligning chakras, and, of course, saving the environment. And not so long ago on TV, environmentalists frequently looked like Abby and Larry - just this side of UFO spotters.

A few years later, and a climate degree or so warmer, TV's eco-lovers aren't dragging around the crackpot baggage so much anymore. Daily TV programming - that endless feed of who we are right now, and now, and now - no longer supports the quaint old image of paranoid lefties shouting about the apocalypse.

Right now, in fact, green TV is undergoing a re-branding of sorts, with a spate of material that exudes the cushy vibe of a day spa more than the pathos of a UFO sighting. The time when "green" was a euphemism for "nut-job" is as over as Al Gore's political career. Yet Gore has emerged triumphant - now best known as a climate-change environmentalist and as the star of "An Inconvenient Truth," the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary that initiated America's changing pop cultural attitude toward environmentalism.

For better and for worse, we have a slick new eco-stereotype in the works. On TV, "green" now conjures up far more bourgeois associations - Lexus hybrid SUVs, chemical-free cosmetics, solar panels on pool houses, organic cotton jeans. As far as TV advertisers are concerned, the smaller a viewer wants his carbon footprint to be, the bigger his stock portfolio probably is. Eco-lovers are no longer viewed as unwilling to dip into their patchouli-scented, tie-dyed purses - now they've got consciences and cash. They buy Vanity Fair's annual green issue. Their footprint is well-heeled.

On June 4, a cable network devoted to the new eco gentry premiered in 50 million of the nation's 110 million TV homes. Called Planet Green, the channel (owned by Discovery) plans to milk 24/7 programming out of home renovations and Hollywood's greener-than-thou zeitgeist.

It joins a steady flow of unscripted green TV elsewhere on the dial - the Sundance Channel's weekly eco-programming block called "The Green," as well as environmental specials and themes on the likes of PBS, Current TV, and the National Geographic Channel. The reality series "Living With Ed," originally on HGTV and now on Planet Green, gives us the marital duel between eco-centric Hollywood actor Ed Begley Jr. and his wife, while HGTV's "Red, Hot & Green" is one of many shows helping people build and design with an eye to Earth-friendliness. Sea grass wallpaper and bamboo flooring, anyone?

Last fall, during November sweeps, NBC unveiled its glitzy "Green Week" concept (to be repeated this fall), which featured contestants on "The Singing Bee" karaoke-ing environmental anthems. The week's green themes were carried onto NBC-Universal-owned cable channels, including MSNBC and Bravo, as well as onto NBC's scripted series, including "ER," "Scrubs," and "Chuck."

Doomed?

Planet Green raises the question: Is green TV a no-win proposition? When it tries to be flashy and hip, eco-programming can wind up seeming shallow and self-satisfied.

So far, Planet Green is not feeling its way onto the scene like a modest newbie. It condescendingly advocates practical tips in most of its shows, notably "Wa$ted," which finds a team of eco-guilt-trippers rushing into fat-footprint homes and, like Jo on "Supernanny," urging insulation and cloth diapers onto the inhabitants.

The network flaunts even more smugness in "Alter Eco," in which "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier tries to make environmentalism look like, well, an episode of "Entourage." And it dabbles in eye-rolling silliness with "Hollywood Green," which finds a gabby Maria Menounos contributing to greenhouse gas by touting the good works of Madonna, Brad Pitt, and - no kidding - "the original greenie," "The Incredible Hulk."

After a few hours on Planet Green, watching celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito cooking locally grown epicurean fancies and watching Grenier sipping biodynamic wines in the afternoon, you might start to crave the rantings of those old-school crackpots. In the process of making rescuing Earth into non-medicinal cable entertainment, the new network comes off too much like a deluxe day of beauty at an exclusive club: Steam those cheeks! Condition that hair! Compost those eggshells! "Why preserve life if we can't enjoy it," the ultra-relaxed Grenier says like a hedonist guru at a retreat.

Between ads that tout everything from allergy pills to air freshener as green, the mellow vibe of Planet Green is unbearably posh and fashionable.

NBC's Green Week also had tonal problems. It smacked of half-heartedness, and it left a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Green advice kept popping up in series story lines like sloppily obvious product placements. On "Law & Order: SVU," for example, discussion of recycling a pizza box preceded the discovery of a bomb in the box. Such forced hints managed to be preachy and supercilious all at once.

Sincerer than thou

And yet, when more in-depth and less cliquish eco efforts arrive, they can feel obligatory and labored. With "The Green," Sundance has merged indie-movie sensibility with environmental consciousness a tad less offensively than Grenier's "Alter Eco." But amid all the public education about the dire state of the planet, Sundance's "Big Ideas for a Small Planet," a centerpiece of "The Green," can be dully sincere, as well as eyebrow-raising. While looking at leaders in the eco-movement, the series isn't above profiling and gushing over one of its own car sponsors for creating a sustainable office building with water-free urinals. Is the show objective and investigative, or is it an infomercial? There should be no question.

The purest and most entertaining eco-promotion right now may be incidental - on those shows and series that aren't exactly classified as Green TV.

In the tradition of the TV work of Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall, as well as classic Sunday series such as "Wide Wide World" and the original "Wild Kingdom," there are soulful nature series all over cable such as Discovery's landmark 11-part "Planet Earth."

By inspiring respect and awe for the planet, and by profiling the struggle for survival of all kinds of species, "Planet Earth" may accomplish more than all 24/7 of Planet Green - particularly now that HDTV can intensify the primal beauty. The Discovery series lacks the air of sanctimony that haunts too much of green TV.

Humor helps

Too bad Planet Green doesn't have a sitcom in the mix, alongside "World's Greenest Homes" and "Supper Club," in which "Dancing With the Stars" presenter Tom Bergeron hosts a green dinner party with green-minded guests. The one NBC Green Week effort that did have creative ballast was the "30 Rock" episode, which, like so much on "30 Rock," made satirical fun of NBC and its parent company, General Electric. The sitcom acknowledged and had a good time at the expense of the hypocrisy that leads not-so-green corporations to use green to sell product.

David Schwimmer played an aggressive environmentalist mascot named Greenzo, who turns out to be a liability to a company trying to sell appliances by feigning eco-consciousness. "You people make me sick," he snaps at Tina Fey's Liz Lemon at one point. "You act like you care, but you do nothing. Do you even bother to compost your own feces?" Add an Al Gore cameo to the mix and you had eco-comedy of the slyest order.

The episode invited viewers to question green commercialism, before buying into it. Alas, the ironic approach to green, pushing us into awareness through laughter, is the exception on TV, and that's too bad. More levity and self-honesty would go a long way, as it did on Showtime's "Tracey Ullman's State of the Union," with Ullman pretending to be environmentalist Laurie David traveling wastefully in a private jet. Maybe Planet Green's forthcoming "Battleground Earth," in which Tommy Lee and Ludacris compete to be the greener performer, will make light while bringing illumination - but I doubt it.

TV's best-ever cautionary tale about promoting environmentalism arrived on an episode of "South Park" from 2006, long before the advent of Planet Green. Called "Smug Alert," the half-hour ruthlessly parodied the self-righteousness of chic environmentalists. Kyle's father becomes obsessed with his new hybrid car, called a Pious, and that leads to a plot involving not toxic smog but toxic "smug." As Ranger McFriendly tells young Stan, "When people drive hybrid cars they get so full of themselves they spew tons of self-satisfied garbage into the air. That isn't smog - it's smug. . . . You get enough smug in the atmosphere, you know what that leads to? Global laming."

In true "South Park" fashion, the episode - available for free at southparkstudios.com - cuts to the heart of the matter. The conflation of morality and environmentalism is a tricky business, one that keeps Planet Green from being as entertaining and evocative and inclusive as an all-green channel could be. Phrases such as "carbon footprint" and "sustainable" are worthy of serious reporting and great opportunities for clever humor, they're not cult passwords.

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

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