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The paparazzi never go away

Cameras capture more drama among those famous meerkats.

June 06, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Mick Kaczorowski, executive producer of the previously tear-jerking "Meerkat Manor," promised the new season will not be a three-Kleenex affair. "Maybe one or two," he said, "but not like last year."

At the end of Season 3, fans of the pioneering docu-soap turned their emotional pain from the death of meerkat matriarch Flower into elaborate memorials on the Internet and elsewhere, having already mourned the losses of felled meerkats Mozart and Shakespeare. Starting tonight, viewers who dare return can see "Meerkat Manor: The Next Generation," which picks up the saga of the short, ever vigilant creatures in the Kalahari Desert.

In Season 4, the tone is lighter and funnier, Kaczorowski said. The music younger and hipper. The new narrator, Stockard Channing, adds a sassy sort of humor to the life-and-death adventures of younger groups of the Whiskers, he said. Still, they have to cope with drought, disease and the Commandos, a rival gang.

With the queen gone, two of her offspring, Rocket Dog and Maybelline, rose to power. But while Rocket Dog retained control of the Whiskers, her sister started her own splinter group, the Aztecs. Since the matriarchs are the only females allowed to breed, they were both looking for partners. Unfortunately, that too was a struggle, Kaczorowski said. Flower's widower, Zaphod, "chased off prospective liaisons" for both of them.

("Don't judge it, just watch it," say the ads for the new season.)

Publicists for the show see uncanny similarities with the Tudor clan, which set the standard for banishing, power breeding, and violent death. "Rocket Dog reminded me of Queen Elizabeth," said publicist Tahli Kouperstein. "Maybelline reminded me of Queen Mary."

Those people are here

Stylistically, the show is reaching new levels for animal documentaries, said Kaczorowski. Meerkats live on average about six years, and the younger generation has grown up with cameras trained on them. Cambridge researchers have been filming them for 14 years, before Animal Planet arrived. "We have this incredible ability to get closer and closer" to the animals, he said. What's more, the camera crew knows which characters to follow and can anticipate their reactions.

As an experiment in turning a documentary into a narrative with animals as named characters, "Meerkat Manor" has become a worldwide phenomenon. Animal Planet has been reproducing the format, spinning off shows such as "Chimp Eden," "Orangutan Island" and "Lemur Kingdom." But none has begun to approach the popularity of the meerkats. People dressed as meerkats have appeared on YouTube, E! Entertainment's "The Soup" and in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. A New Yorker cartoon pictured meerkats in an office cubicle standing guard for predators.

"The meerkat craze is out of this world," Kaczorowski said. "Brad and Angelina and their kids are meerkat fans."

The show is seen in 160 countries and has a separate narrator (Bill Nighy) and different character names in a British version. In the American version this year, characters, who are named by the researchers, have been named after celebrities and even TV hosts and reality show judges, such as Seacrest and Simon.

Previously, the British version would air months before the U.S. version. Animal Planet had to strictly monitor the fan sites to keep the British fans from revealing plot twists to U.S. fans. This year, the U.S. version will air first, leaving the monitoring up to the British networks, Kaczorowski said.

But even before the new season premiered, a spoiler hit the blogs, bringing out the first Kleenex.

"I can't believe it!" wrote FlowerOurQueen on a YouTube blog. "There's no way I can deal with another death!"

Another fan was more sanguine. "Oh well, that stinks," she wrote. But clearly, that writer had yet to catch on to the concept of a show whose stars must abide by nature's, not the screenwriters' plot. "I just hope no more die," she wrote.

--

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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