Discovery Channel's new series “Animal Face-Off” could be the greatest water cooler show ever invented. That's not to say it's the greatest show ever—there are far too many missed opportunities in the series for it to qualify as essential viewing. But the concept is pure, unadulterated genius. It's guaranteed to spark many a debate at work, at school and on the playground.
Basically, the show is a high-tech update of the old gladiatorial games at the Roman coliseum. Whenever the Roman emperors got bored of watching people hack each other apart in the arena, they'd toss in a lion and a rhino or some equally exotic combo and let them fight to the death. Since certain watchdog organizations might frown on actually recreating these intriguing duels, Discovery Channal has come up with a way to simulate them. Sort of.
Each week, two well-matched animals are pitted in a head-to-head competition. Could be shark vs. crocodile. Could be elephant vs. rhino. Could be lion vs. tiger. The possibilities, of course, are endless. Pangolin vs. capybara, for example.
Two teams of scientists, zoologists and mechanical engineers are assigned one of the animals and set about building life-sized mechanical replicas, making the show a cross between “Wild Kingdom” and “Robot Wars.” It would seem that a tempered steel alligator head manipulated by hydraulics wouldn't have much in common with a real live animal. Oddly enough, it doesn't really matter, since these mechanical monsters are used for exactly nothing. After spending roughly half the hour-long show building these creatures, the scientists “test” them and feed the data into a rather dubious computer simulator. In the last five minutes of the show, the animals duke in out in a computer-animated simulation. Since the simulation has to be scripted and animated, the whole show would seem to boil down to which creature the show's producers think is cooler.
Which brings us to the “discussion topic” aspect of the show. I still think a crocodile would kick a sharks ass. Perhaps you disagree. I don't think the show solves the riddle to any satisfactory degree. But it makes for interesting speculation. The concept of “Animal Face-Off” is so infectious, in fact, that Cartoon Network milked an entire week-long parody out of it. CN pitted a flying shark (with a jetpack) against a flying crocodile (with wings). Surprisingly enough, the debate it touched off was spirited, passionate and, at times, a bit nasty.
Ultimately, “Animal Face-Off” would probably be better as a half-hour show. The dramatic build up is way too slow and the creation of mechanical metal monsters is stupid unless you're actually going to make them fight. It's interesting to get a few statistics about your favorite vicious animals, but I find the scientific process pretty suspect and the conclusions highly dubious. My suggestion is to tune in to the last five minutes, watch the rigged fight and argue about it the next day with your favorite wildlife/WWE enthusiast.
“Animal Face-Off” airs every Sunday at 8 p.m. on Discovery Channel.