TV glides past meditative to arrive at vegetative

Earth Moods, showing on Disney+, is a TV show with no voices – just the abstract beauty of nature and a soundtrack that soughs and swells in step with the slowly moving cameras.
Earth Moods, showing on Disney+, is a TV show with no voices – just the abstract beauty of nature and a soundtrack that soughs and swells in step with the slowly moving cameras.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Earth Moods, which recently landed on Disney+, is a television show: five episodes, each 31 minutes long. So why does it look so much like a screensaver?

There are no voices in Earth Moods because there are no people. Just the abstract beauty of nature - the streaks and whorls of green water and red earth, as the screen drifts from dunes to reefs to river deltas.

There is an urban episode, Night Lights, but the aerial photography elides the human occupants of cars and buildings.

The soundtrack soughs and swells in step with the slowly moving cameras, occasionally giving way to the music of wind, water and birdsong.

Unlike a laptop or smart-TV screensaver, though, which appears unbidden, Earth Moods takes some effort - it does not come to you, you need to go to it. And you need to have paid for a Disney+ subscription.

It might not exist if it were not for the big tent of streaming video, but it is still TV, even if it sits at the far edge, requiring participation, but asking for only the tiniest bit of engagement.

Gliding past creative, derivative and meditative, it arrives at vegetative - the couch potato's final destination.

You could, with justification, dismiss Earth Moods as an anomaly, an incidental bonus that Disney+, via its National Geographic subsidiary, throws in for its more anxiety-ridden subscribers.

It is that, but it is also one of a relatively small collection of original series on the service. It is also not unique, even if it is still a rare and extreme example of its kind.

It fits in the larger category of comfort TV, the broad, hazily defined genre that has thrived off the fallout from political despair and pandemic restrictions.

There is a tradition for Earth Moods, even back into the history of terrestrial TV. Yule logs and other fireplace-based features have served as seasonal backdrops.

Nightly sign-offs, when local stations used to go off the air, offered comfort with their predictability and their patriotic playing of the national anthem.

Restless viewers fell asleep to The Tonight Show. Endlessly repeated commercials, back when we actually watched them, were another form of background noise.

Today, comfort TV has taken on a new sophistication and substance.

Shows such as Ted Lasso on Apple TV+ and Schitt's Creek (on multiple streamers) draw devoted audiences with a finely tooled sincerity that removes any potentially provocative or uncomfortable edge from their jokes - they offer the structure of situation comedy without the challenge it has at its best.

Even more self-aware are the shows that play with the conventions of comfort TV while still embodying them.

Adult Swim's Joe Pera Talks With You is a comedian's intricately constructed simulacrum of Midwestern courtesy and inoffensiveness, rendered with just the slightest perceptible edge of satire.

In HBO's Painting With John, actor and artist John Lurie invites us into his pastoral, tropical home to watch him paint and listen to him opine. He is the slacker nature host - turning the camera on the horizon, he says: "There's a sunset. You think of something poetic."

Shows like these are at the high end of the comfort-TV spectrum, but Earth Moods has an increasing amount of company at the simpler end.

Disney+ also offers Zenimation, a set of 10 shorts with titles like Water and Flight that simply edit together scenes from Disney's animated movies so that viewers can "unplug, relax and enjoy".

There is a close kinship between this kind of programming and the traditional nature show, and it is reflected in things like the Public Broadcasting Service's Soothing Nature shorts on Facebook.

Slightly more demanding of attention, but still aimed at alleviating stress, is the HBO Max series A World Of Calm, based on a series of recordings for adults called Sleep Stories.

Celebrity narrators present 22-minute episodes on standard subjects of non-fiction TV - actress Lucy Liu on coral reefs, actor Oscar Isaac on the making of noodles - but they speak very slowly, in time with the often slow-motion progress of the images.

The category also includes instructional shows such as Netflix's Headspace Guide To Meditation and the comically self-explanatory Headspace Guide To Sleep, which provides soothing tones, childlike animation and episodes that end with hopeful countdowns to slumber.

It is the encapsulation of vegetative TV: Television made to stop you from watching television.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2021, with the headline 'TV glides past meditative to arrive at vegetative'. Subscribe