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Archive for Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is ‘Stuffers’ too dark (and funny) for Animal Planet?

January 5, 2012

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“American Stuffers” (9 p.m., Animal Planet) follows the formula of many recent series. It’s set in rural America — Romance, Ark., to be exact. Several characters describe themselves as “rednecks” with unabashed pride. It follows one man’s exotic trade and features workplace shenanigans and lighthearted marital tiffs.

Daniel Ross is both the boss and owner of Xtreme Taxidermy and the sole voice of sanity. If you can consider the foremost practitioner of pet taxidermy to be entirely sane.

Daniel has a loving schoolteacher wife, a few cute, indifferent sons and a shop full of characters. I’m particularly intrigued by Fred, a silent, self-trained fellow who just “drifted” into the shop and the trade. Seriously, Daniel has to remind Fred to wear a shirt while skinning dead animals.

But the real stars of the show are the very odd clients, like a grizzled biker who arrives to pick up the stuffed version of his dead dog, Turd. He repeatedly tells us that Turd was like a child. Only I’m pretty sure that if you name your child Turd, you get a call from Social Services. Even in Romance, Ark.

Other morbid moments concern a giant tattooed guy and his petite wife who drop off their deceased Chihuahua, Toot Toot, for the Xtreme treatment. For all of the grotesque shots of the taxidermy process, these scenes of dead little pets and their limp, inert bodies are the most jarring and heart-wrenching.

Toot Toot’s owners insist that his crossed eyes and lazy tongue be immortalized just so. And that’s no small matter when you are faced with the task of disemboweling a tiny dog, then gouging out its eyes and restuffing, sewing, baking, freeze-drying and posing it to resemble the Toot Toot of yore.

Many of those grim procedures fall to Dixie, the new college intern, who barely stifles her gag reflexes before settling into the workplace routine. What people will do to get on television!

Clearly inspired by Errol Morris’ 1978 classic pet cemetery documentary “Gates of Heaven,” this series puts great emphasis on humans and the way they stumble toward profundity when confronted with eternity in the guise of a dead pet. One mourner-turned-art appreciator invokes Maya Angelou during a particularly emotional ramble. Fans of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories should not miss this.

For all of its hifalutin’ appeal, I fear “Stuffers” may be the most controversial and hated series in the network’s history. And should “Stuffers” alienate Animal Planet’s core audience of critter lovers, I fully expect this show to be deader than Toot Toot after a short, but memorable, run.

Tonight’s other highlights

• Competitive eating can be murder on “Bones” (7 p.m., Fox).

• Filmmakers and performers extol the work of a master cinematographer in the 2010 documentary “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff” (7 p.m., TCM).

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