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TV Review: Life – “Fish” on the Discovery Channel

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One of the great things about well-made documentaries is that if you miss one, it will be available on DVD and/or Blu-ray. If you didn’t catch “Fish,” the March 28 episode of the Discovery Channel-BBC collaboration, Life, it will be available after the close of the series, April 18. But why wait? Discovery will present “Fish” again on Sunday, April 4, (along with a rerun of “Mammals,” and two new episodes, “Birds” and “Creatures of the Deep”).

Because this series is such a visual pleasure, I’ve thought of recommending that it be watched with the sound muted. No offense to narrator Oprah Winfrey, but after you’ve viewed it and listened, you should really just view, the visuals are that impressive. If you’ve ever wanted an aquarium but not the choice between cleaning it and floating fish, “Fish” is the ideal candidate to be watched without sound. Or accompanied by your favorite music—Beethoven would be nice; Black-Eyed Peas or Beyoncé would also work. Okay, play whatever you like…

“Fish” is a collection of spectacular, mostly underwater images. Me? I’m not a big fan of our finny friends; I don’t dislike fish—I have no interest. However, if you’re going to showcase a fish that’s an underwater me (the fringehead, a little fish with a big mouth that’s not afraid to use it) I’m there. I marveled at flying fish performing their airborne escape, and was awe-inspired by thousands of convict fish in schools that appeared as pools of silver and black. Scenes of massive numbers of anchovies—tightly organized and synchronized—are not to be missed; they offer a spectacular, shape-shifting show.

I doubted I could be easily convinced that fish are humorous or entertaining (no, not even clownfish) but once I saw the Japanese mud skipper, a fish that walks on land and breathes air, I was ready to concede the point. The mud skipper digs out a tunnel by the only method nature has provided. It fills its mouth with mud, then spits out pellets. It’s really quite hilarious (maybe not to the mud skipper). Piles of pellets surround the tunnel entrance, and the poor thing is working against the tide—the job never ends. Since it lives on land and breathes air, will it evolve into something more like us? Probably not—it takes pleasure in eating mud a lot more than we do, although there are some among us who enjoy mud wrestling as much as the skippers do. The skippers also succeed at the amazing job of delivering oxygen to eggs sealed in a near airless chamber. Watching parenting wild-animal-style may make you question why so many humans are so very bad at it.

A mammal makes a cameo appearance in “Fish,” and it’s one of the best sequences (I don’t say that just because I’m a mammal). Barbels live in clear, nearly pristine lakes. The problem is the lakes offer few nutrients. At night, hippos roam the land, eating and digesting the vegetation. During the day, they swim, depositing the “processed” vegetation in the lake, where the barbells feast. I know—ugh—but we’re not barbells. These fish also eat hippo parasites and tics and—were that not enough—they swim into the hippo’s mouth and clean its teeth. (Does universal health care include dental? I may have to look into getting a few barbels.)

I have enthused about the cinematography in the Life series, but the editors deserve a lot of credit. Fabulous images poorly cobbled together would not produce the outstanding installments that constitute Life. As I was watching “Fish,” I couldn’t help but notice and admire the editors’ handiwork. If you haven’t yet caught on, I highly recommend Life as an instructive, entertaining, and enjoyable adjunct to your life.

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