Thursday 5 December 2019

John Boland's week in TV: Shell-shocked Liz Bonnin reaches wishy-washy conclusion in documentary about eating meat


Aghast: Liz Bonnin with cows going through a seaweed feed trial in California on Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?
Aghast: Liz Bonnin with cows going through a seaweed feed trial in California on Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?

John Boland

The question mark in the title, Meat: A Threat to Our Planet? (BBC1), was redundant because there was no doubt from the outset of Liz Bonnin's investigation that our avid consumption of animal meat was very bad indeed.

Not bad for our health, because the Irish wildlife biologist, whose Drowning in Plastic programme won awards last year, chose not to go there, or for the slaughtered animals themselves, because she didn't really go there, either, but for the environmental welfare of the world.

She herself, she confessed, had been eating meat "my whole life", but when she saw hundreds of thousands of cattle being intensively farmed in Texas, she was aghast.

She was even more horrified in North Carolina, which has 30 times more pigs than people and where these animals are cluttered together in barns, their manure sifted off into nearby man-made lagoons that have toxic effects on the surrounding countryside.

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And she couldn't hold back a tear when flying over huge swathes of the Amazonian rainforest that have been denuded of carbon-containing trees ("the lungs of the earth" she reminded us) in order to provide grazing land for Brazil's beef barons - the world's largest beef exporters, she told us.

And the figures she provided were overwhelming, too: 65 billion animals consumed across the globe each year, 40 billion of them coming from factory farms, as well as three billion tonnes of animal manure unloaded each year into the environment.

The experience of filming this programme, she told us at the end, had left her "shell-shocked", even if her conclusion was a somewhat vague and wishy-washy declaration that "something has to change".

From human-made disasters to those coming from outer space, you might have a look at 8 Days (Sky Atlantic), a German drama that depicts the end of the world as we know it and explores the reactions of those seeking to stay alive as a gigantic asteroid hurtles towards Earth.

We have been here before, most risibly in two 1998 Hollywood blockbusters: Deep Impact, in which US president Morgan Freeman looked even more grave than usual in the face of impending doom, and Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck battled to avert global annihilation.

This new eight-parter is somewhat more intriguing, not least because it's set in Europe, where the huge meteor is about to crash land in (yes) eight days, and thus there's none of that US gung-ho nonsense with which to contend. In fact, the characters are mostly trying to flee to America or Russia, neither of which will be too affected by the catastrophe.

I've only watched two episodes so far, but they've been bleakly tense: one family getting separated in the middle of nowhere after being duped by people smugglers, and a more wealthy and politically connected couple finding that their departure for America on a US Air Force plane isn't as simple as they imagined. Meanwhile, other Germans are looting shops, drinking themselves into oblivion or indulging in other hedonistic pursuits.

There are soapy elements in some of the storylines, as there also were in BBC1's recent World on Fire, but, as with that World War II drama, you can't help rooting for the more sympathetic characters while hoping that outcomes might be less kind for some others. And the sense of displacement from normal living is very well conveyed.

I'm less keen on the second season of The Sinner (BBC4), which has replaced the peerless Spiral on Saturday nights. In fact, if memory serves, this premiered a while back on Netflix, though now it's been given the imprimatur of a mainstream terrestrial channel.

The first season of The Sinner began arrestingly, with Jessica Biel as a young married woman who, for no discernible reason, stabbed a man to death at a lakeside picnic. This was investigated by mopey detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) but the plot twists became so tortuous as to be downright silly.

In the second season, Harry's still mopey, not to mention bemused and bewildered, and with some rather odd sexual kinks, as he tries to find out why a 13-year-old boy poisoned his parents in the motel where they were staying overnight. Except it turns out that they weren't really his parents, belonging instead to some evangelical cult.

This looks like it might get silly, too, but you may well be diverted by such fine supporting players as Carrie Coon (the cop in one season of Fargo), Tracy Letts (Saoirse Ronan's dad in Lady Bird), Jay O Sanders and Natalie Paul.

Rick Stein has always been the most amiable of celebrity chefs, both enquiring and engaging, and I've greatly enjoyed his weekend breaks in Lisbon, Palermo and other alluring cities (Neven Maguire is similarly engaged and enthusiastic on his televised trips abroad).

In Rick Stein's Secret France (BBC2), he purports to find out if French cuisine has been undergoing a lapse in standards, but it's really just an excuse for him to wander around markets, chat to locals and eat food that looks delicious.

So far he's taken us to Picardy, Alsace, Burgundy and the Auvergne, and this week he was in the Dordogne and Languedoc, making rain-soaked November viewers wish they were with him.

Meanwhile, there was absolutely nothing on RTÉ this week - except, of course, last night's Late Late Toy Show, an annual institution so revered by everyone (not least Ryan Tubridy) that it's impossible to say a bad, or even sceptical, word about it. Just as well then that it came too late in the week for mention in this column.


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