This weekend saw the second season premiere of High Maintenance, the HBO comedy about a Brooklyn weed dealer and his clients. If you’re looking for something to watch while stoned, however, your best bet is Blue Planet II, the long-awaited sequel to the BBC’s lauded 2001 documentary series. The follow-up, which aired the first of eight episodes on Saturday, is stunning, taking viewers across the globe and to the deepest depths of the ocean in pursuit of the trippiest images ever deemed to be “educational.”
But the slippery subjects of Blue Planet II are not just something pretty to fill your screen for an evening. The series emphasizes how these creatures’ habits, quirks and desires are not so far from our own. That’s the real thrill: Those mind-blown moments when your perception of what is possible on this Earth expands like a blowfish puffing up its stomach with water. Have you ever seen an eel go through toxic shock? Or a fish swoop out of the water and swallow a bird in its giant mouth mid-flight?
Blue Planet II aired in the fall in the United Kingdom, and airs stateside on Saturdays at 9 p.m. on BBC America. It’s worth making the effort to watch this one week by week, as it airs; it could get repetitive in a binge, particularly if you’ve seen the original series. But the sequel offers invaluable updates, largely thanks to technological advances in the 17-year gap since the first Blue Planet aired. Ultra-HD drones produce spectacularly clear and detailed aerial footage. Tow cameras allow us to swim alongside the fastest fish. Updated scuba equipment helps divers stay underwater and observe habitats for longer periods of time — which is how you find a story in the wild.
Over four years of filming, and with the aid of extreme low-light cameras, the BBC crew captured visions of life under the sea that have never before been witnessed by the human eye. For the second episode, “The Deep,” producer Orla Doherty and her team traveled 3,280 feet below the frigid waters of the Antarctic in a battery-powered “submersible” — like the little submarine at the beginning of Titanic — and found a tiny snail fish living in waters that scientists thought were too deep to support life. In the Gulf of Mexico, they witness methane volcanoes burping basketball-sized bubbles 2,000 feet down. In vivid detail, ultra-HD cameras record the asymmetrical eyeballs of a cockeyed squid, and a barreleye fish whose transparent head allows it to scan the waters above for food.
The Blue Planet series faces a greater challenge than its sister, Planet Earth I and II, when it comes to getting viewers to connect with its non-human subjects. This is tricky with the amphibious and tentacled. An antennae-sporting Bobbit worm that dwells on the ocean floor isn’t quite as cuddly as a baby spider monkey. But that otherworldliness makes these creatures fascinating, and the producers, led by James Honeyborne and Mark Brownlow, find ingenious ways to draw parallels between their behavior and ours.
On a shoot spanning 39 countries, the producers have found characters and storylines that rival even the most creative saltwater fiction. The first episode, “One Ocean,” follows a resourceful tuskfish that digs for clams and then brings them back to a bowl-shaped bit of coral that narrator David Attenborough calls his “special kitchen.” It took the team over 100 hours of patient observation, over a month, to determine that the fish uses the same spot to break open his treats, hitting the bivalves repeatedly against the coral until they crack. For the first time, cameras caught two species of dolphin greeting each other in the waters off the coast of New Zealand. Scientists believe individual dolphins of entirely different species may actually recognize one another. In one episode, fish gather at a floating log in the water like they’re hanging out at the mall.
The series often flies in the face of perceived knowledge about what people have long considered “natural.” Clownfish families, for instance, are ruled by the female, which is bigger than the male — who has to prove his worth by “keeping on top of the housework,” as Attenborough explains. One species of fish, the Kobudai wrasse, can change sex from female to male, so the sexual prey becomes the sexual predator. All of this we see in gorgeous close-up, vibrant enough to top the best CGI effects — better than anything Disney’s animators could conjure. Our stupid human artists love to anthropomorphize animals, but we don’t have to. They’re interesting enough without us projecting our inane ideals all over them.
Critics and creators talk about art, and TV in particular, as a vessel for empathy, for exploring and maybe even understanding the lives of people who aren’t like us. Will & Grace is often held up as a show that helped change Americans’ minds about gay marriage. Maybe the same can be true, Blue Planet II suggests, for an issue like climate change.
There’s a moment in almost every episode, as in last year’s Planet Earth II, when Attenborough’s voice grows somber and he tells us that all is not well — that these marvelously self-sustaining ecosystems are changing faster than ever before. In “Coral Reefs,” the third episode, we’re reminded that rising temperatures since 2016 have bleached two-thirds of the shallow water corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We see before-and-after shots, the bright pinks and oranges turned to ghostly gray ruins, their inhabitants left homeless. In episode six, “Coasts,” we’re told that 10 percent of remaining wild shores will give way to development in the next decade — which will lead to more conflict between the areas’ human inhabitants and those, like sharks off the coast of Florida, that have been there for millennia.
In the seventh episode, “Our Blue Planet,” we meet the scientists who have dedicated their lives to protecting the seas. Eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year: The smallest of fish mistake tiny plastic particles for food, and eventually they make their way up the food chain, where a dolphin may unwittingly feed her babies contaminated milk. Meanwhile, TV network marketing departments continue to ship abundant parcels of promotional material touting every new series — including Blue Planet II, for which I received a package full of treats along with a small USB key containing screeners. Sure, one of those treats was a “smart scarf” made from recycled plastic bottles, but another was a box of whale-shaped gummies encased in hard plastic. I ate them; I’m no saint. But as I did, I wondered where that little plastic cube would end up.
These days, we gobble up shows like Black Mirror that hint at a dystopian future when our digital avatars will eclipse our real selves — a nightmare scenario in which our frenzy for technological “improvement” subsumes the very things that make us human, and that make life worth living. But the creatures on display in Blue Planet II are living that reality already; how ironic that the very same innovation that allows us to see their worlds up close is also, in a broader sense, destroying them.
In the first episode, a group of desperate sea lions aggressively jostles for space on a piece of ice floating in the ocean, and it feels like a harbinger of things to come. In the end, the commotion upends the ice floe, and they all fall into the water. “This time,” Attenborough intones, “everyone loses.”
Blue Planet II airs Saturdays on BBC America. You can watch the first episode for free here.